A recent paper in a journal called Medical Hypotheses has made the argument that maybe we shouldn’t be wearing masks. It cites year-old research, from before we understood the pandemic, and its arguments don’t hold together. But it looks like a scientific study, and it’s been shared on social media and by some news sites as if it is a study.
To experts in the field and to people who have kept up with research on COVID-19 over the past year, the paper’s claims are obviously unsupported and its argument is not new or interesting; it’s mainly a restatement of claims that have been debunked over and over (including here at Lifehacker).
But many people shared it because it looked like a legit study. It was often identified as a “Stanford study” or an “NIH study,” and the fact that it was published in a peer-reviewed journal seemed to lend it some credibility. So let’s look at why those signifiers are not actually relevant.
What’s the difference between a study and a journal article?
Scientific journals publish a variety of papers. Many of them describe a study, which I’d define as an experiment, or set of experiments, that seek to answer a piece of a real-world question. A clinical trial of a drug or vaccine is one example of a study. A statistical analysis of rates of disease in a population is another. A lab experiment done with test tubes and microscopes is yet another.
But journals also publish other things, like reviews that collect previous research and comment on similarities and differences in their findings. They also publish opinion and editorial pieces, which could certainly include a science-backed argument for or against a public health recommendation like wearing masks.
There are also journals that are, shall we say, weird. The one that this recent anti-mask paper appeared in is called Medical Hypotheses, and while it is a peer-reviewed journal, it is not in the business of publishing, er, empirically solid studies. It says of itself:
…Medical Hypotheses was therefore launched, and still exists today, to give novel, radical new ideas and speculations in medicine open-minded consideration, opening the field to radical hypotheses which would be rejected by most conventional journals.
Appearing on PubMed doesn’t make something an “NIH study”
The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, keeps a database of articles published in medical and health-related journals. This database, known as PubMed, is a helpful tool for finding papers and for sharing abstracts.
If you didn’t know that, though, you might follow a link to a PubMed abstract, notice that there’s a big NIH logo in the corner, and assume that the paper was published by the NIH or that it describes a study conducted by the NIH. But the NIH just runs the database; very few of its 32 million citations describe research actually conducted by the institute.
It’s not a “Stanford study” either
There are Stanford scientists who have published somewhat questionably-motivated research about the pandemic, but that’s not the case here. A common tactic in disinformation campaigns (like the one surrounding Plandemic) is to lean on somebody’s former job title or their association with people or institutions they may have interacted with in the past, even when that affiliation is no longer accurate or relevant.
In the case of this anti-mask paper, the author gave his affiliation as “Cardiology Division, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System/Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, United States.” But according to Stanford itself, the author is not affiliated with Stanford, aside from a one-year stint as a visiting scholar in 2016.
These red flags didn’t tip off the many people who shared the study, including on several local news pages, according to a Reuters fact check report. One popular post from a conservative website used the phrasing “A recent Stanford study released by the NCBI, which is under the National Institutes of Health,” which is doubly wrong. If they had read a bit further, they would have known better. Sometimes people share things they want to believe, rather than things that are actually believable.