Journal retracts anti-mask article falsely claiming Stanford affiliation

May 2, 2021, 10:41 p.m.

Medical Hypotheses, a speculative medical journal, has retracted an article that disputed the efficacy of face masks and inaccurately affiliated itself with Stanford University.

After Stanford requested a correction to remove the misattributed affiliation, the journal opted to pull the article altogether. 

Jonathan Davis, a spokesperson for Elsevier, the publisher of Medical Hypotheses, told The Daily that the journal’s editorial committee determined that aspects of the paper were misleading and that a “broader review of existing scientific evidence” shows that “masks are an effective prevention of COVID-19 transmission.” 

Davis said in the email that the study’s author, Baruch Vainshelboim, had submitted the article with the Stanford Medicine affiliation, which inaccurately describes him as an affiliate of the Cardiology Division of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and Stanford University. 

Vainshelboim could not be reached for comment.

The study claims that masks are not effective in preventing the transmission of coronavirus and can cause medical conditions that deprive the body of oxygen — theories that have been repeatedly debunked by health authorities and infectious disease experts. 

Dr. Dean Winslow, a professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist, said that the issue of mask wearing has become a culture war in the U.S. 

“The fact is that masks do a really great job of preventing transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory pathogens to other individuals,” Winslow said. He added that “there’s good scientific data to show that masks also provide a significant degree of protection to the people wearing them.”

Winslow pointed to the decline in influenza and other respiratory virus transmission this past winter to underscore the efficacy of masks, adding that some may choose to adopt mask wearing going forward as a “new normal.” Until coronavirus is contained, Winslow recommended that individuals continue to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces.

According to Davis, the study misquotes and selectively cites published articles. In addition, a table in the paper outlining the health consequences of mask wearing contains “unverified” data and “speculative statements.” The journal apologizes to Medical Hypotheses’ readers “for the difficulties this issue has caused,” Davis wrote.

Davis added that following an internal review by the journal’s editorial leadership and Elsevier, Medical Hypotheses has redesigned its review processes to ensure that similar incidents are avoided in the future.

Although the article was initially published online in November, it garnered attention in early April on social media and right-wing sites. On April 19, an Ohio Republican candidate for U.S. Senate tweeted the study, and it was later cited by an Ohio state representative at a committee hearing.

On the same day, the Gateway Pundit, a conservative outlet that is known to spread disinformation, promoted the study in an article titled, “Stanford Study Results: Facemasks are Ineffective to Block Transmission of COVID-19 and Actually Can Cause Health Deterioration and Premature Death.” The article was later updated to remove the incorrect affiliation.

Stanford Medicine swiftly distanced itself from the study, issuing a statement on April 21 that clarified that the Medical Hypotheses article is not a “Stanford study” and that the author inaccurately affiliated himself with Stanford. The school said that it strongly endorses the use of face masks to control the spread of COVID-19.

School of Medicine spokesperson Julie Greicius previously told The Daily that the author “is not now and never was officially employed with the VA or Stanford” and that the terms of his contract limited his use of the Stanford affiliation to the period of his visiting scholar term. Vainshelboim was a postdoctoral research assistant in a VA Palo Alto-affiliated research lab for a year-long period ending in September 2016.

Winslow said that he and other physicians have been concerned about the spread of medical misinformation throughout the pandemic. He attributed the rise in misinformation in recent years to the amplification of fringe viewpoints.

“As someone who has cared for more than 100 COVID-19 patients since last year, people are getting sick and even dying because of misinformation,” Winslow said.

Winslow added that there is both an ethical and moral component of mask wearing: “I believe in doing things not for yourself but because it’s the right thing to do for society.” Wearing masks, Winslow said, is “a symbol of solidarity and compassion for your fellow Americans.”

Medical Hypotheses is not new to controversy. The journal faced backlash after it published a paper that denied the established link between HIV and AIDS in 2009. The article was later withdrawn. Mehar Manku, the journal’s editor, said in 2010 that Medical Hypotheses should “publish papers that would not get accepted elsewhere.”

Medical Hypotheses’ guidelines state that the journal will “consider radical, speculative and non-mainstream scientific ideas provided they are coherently expressed.” 

Cameron Ehsan is a junior at Stanford studying neurobiology. He served as a news editor and newsroom development director for Vol. 261 and was the Vol. 260 winter managing editor.

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