Published on in Vol 7 (2023)

Preprints (earlier versions) of this paper are available at, first published .
Assessment of the Dissemination of COVID-19–Related Articles Across Social Media: Altmetrics Study

Assessment of the Dissemination of COVID-19–Related Articles Across Social Media: Altmetrics Study

Assessment of the Dissemination of COVID-19–Related Articles Across Social Media: Altmetrics Study

Original Paper

1Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, Camden, NJ, United States

2Department of Medicine, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York, NY, United States

3Department of Medicine, Staten Island University Hospital, Staten Island, NY, United States

4Department of Psychiatry, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO, United States

5American University of Antigua, Coolidge, Antigua and Barbuda

6Department of Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, CA, United States

7The George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Washington, DC, United States

*these authors contributed equally

Corresponding Author:

Refka Al-Beyati, MD

Department of Medicine

David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California

10833 Le Conte Ave

Los Angeles, CA, 90095

United States

Phone: 1 313 310 2931


Background: The use of social media assists in the distribution of information about COVID-19 to the general public and health professionals. Alternative-level metrics (ie, Altmetrics) is an alternative method to traditional bibliometrics that assess the extent of dissemination of a scientific article on social media platforms.

Objective: Our study objective was to characterize and compare traditional bibliometrics (citation count) with newer metrics (Altmetric Attention Score [AAS]) of the top 100 Altmetric-scored articles on COVID-19.

Methods: The top 100 articles with the highest AAS were identified using the Altmetric explorer in May 2020. AAS, journal name, and mentions from various social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, Reddit, Mendeley, and Dimension) were collected for each article. Citation counts were collected from the Scopus database.

Results: The median AAS and citation count were 4922.50 and 24.00, respectively. TheNew England Journal of Medicine published the most articles (18/100, 18%). Twitter was the most frequently used social media platform with 985,429 of 1,022,975 (96.3%) mentions. Positive correlations were observed between AAS and citation count (r2=0.0973; P=.002).

Conclusions: Our research characterized the top 100 COVID-19–related articles by AAS in the Altmetric database. Altmetrics could complement traditional citation count when assessing the dissemination of an article regarding COVID-19.

International Registered Report Identifier (IRRID): RR2-10.2196/21408

JMIR Form Res 2023;7:e41388



SARS-CoV-2 is the pathogen responsible for the latest global pandemic that has exhausted the global economy and health care system to a degree that has not been seen since the 1918 influenza outbreak. Originating from Wuhan, China, in December 2019, more than 230,000 reported fatalities have occurred worldwide as of May 1, 2020, from COVID-19, which is more than that from both severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome combined [1,2]. Due to its rapid spread and massive casualties, there has been a rapid rate of research dissemination across medical journals, and social media platforms to provide real-time guidance to the understanding of the epidemiology, disease characteristics, clinical management, and future treatment developments for COVID-19 to all stakeholders invested in managing this pandemic [3,4].

In contrast to medical journals, social media can serve as a useful platform to inform the wider general public, both medical professionals and laypeople alike, and to disseminate crucial and novel information during this evolving crisis [5,6]. To capture the level of an article’s dissemination across social media, or the “online attention” it receives, alternative metric tools, such as Altmetric, have been created [7-9]. As opposed to traditional metrics of article dissemination, such as article citation count, metrics that capture article dissemination across social media are known as alternative metrics, or “altmetrics.” Provided by Altmetric, one of the main platforms of altmetrics that comprehensively measures web-based social media activity associated with academic articles, the Altmetric Attention Score (AAS) is a weighted score of the amount of “online attention” a research article has received across social media platforms. This refers solely to the number of citations, link-outs, and abstract views. These platforms include Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Wikipedia, blogs, and many others [10].

Given that AAS uses relevant social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, Altmetric can be a potentially useful adjunctive bibliometric tool for holistically evaluating an article’s “impact” beyond just scholarly impact [11]. This includes information uptake, information engagement, and relevance of results. While the citation count or impact factor reflects the number of citations in other articles or journals, altmetrics reflect the instantaneous attention an article garners among news outlets, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other media platforms [4]. Additionally, as paper journals move toward web-based platforms, the armament of these new internet-based technologies provides researchers with a new approach to assessing the effect of research [4]. Over the years in biomedical research, the use of Twitter to disseminate article information has increased drastically, showcasing the degree to which the medical community uses social media [12]. Previous studies have assessed the utility of these tools in determining its complementary use with citation count in various medical fields, but have reported variable results [4,11,13,14].

However, the utility of altmetrics in relation to COVID-19 research has not yet been evaluated [15]. Given that there has been a massive influx of COVID-19–related publications since early 2020, and that altmetrics allow one to rapidly assess an article’s level of dissemination upon publication, altmetrics have the potential to be used complementarily with traditional bibliometrics such as article citation for assessing COVID-19–related research [10]. In the age of the internet where both the academic and the general communities are searching for insightful articles about COVID-19 on the web to gain a better understanding, altmetrics can provide a broader view of an article’s web-based interest and scholarly impact [16]. The purpose of this study was to identify and characterize the 100 most “trended” COVID-19–related articles (ie, those with the highest AAS scores) across social media captured by Altmetric.

Altmetric Explorer was used to identify COVID-19–related publications from December 2019 to May 2020 using the PubMed search terms “COVID-19,” “SARS CoV-2,” and “coronavirus.” Articles that were retracted by May 8, 2020, were excluded from the analysis. In total, 926 articles were found at that time. From this list, the top 100 articles were selected on the basis of their AAS and analyzed on May 8, 2020. The number of mentions from the following Altmetric data components were extracted and examined: news mentions, blog mentions, policy mentions, Twitter mentions, Facebook mentions, Wikipedia mentions, Reddit mentions, Mendeley readers, and the number of Dimension citations [17]. Both Mendeley and Dimensions are research platforms that allow one to share research output. Altmetric can retrieve the number of Mendeley members, or “Mendeley readers,” who read a particular article [18]. Similarly, Altmetric can extract the total references between publications from existing databases and full-text records available on the Dimensions database, or “Dimension citation” [19]. In addition to the extraction of Altmetric data components, we also collected data about where the articles were published, article type, country of article origin, and the article citation count [10,12]. The country of origin was determined from the author affiliation. If authors were from more than 1 country, the article was considered as describing an “international cooperation.” For traditional citation analysis, the article citation count was determined using the Scopus database.

Table 1 summarizes the altmetrics of the top 100 Altmetric articles. A majority of articles were published in biomedical journals. Of these 100 articles, The New England Journal of Medicine published the most manuscripts (18/100, 18%). In total, 42 of 100 (42%) articles were original investigations. Articles from The New England Journal of Medicine had the most news mentions (n=7073), blog mentions (n=637), and blog policy mentions (n=52) regarding COVID-19 (Multimedia Appendix 1). The article with the highest AAS (33,828) was a biomechanistic basic science letter delineating the features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome and providing evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was not constructed in a laboratory (AAS=33,828; citation count=30), while the article with the highest citation count was one of the largest case series that assessed the characteristics of patients admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 pneumonia in China (AAS=14,276; citation count=1,096; Multimedia Appendix 2) [20]. Median AAS, Field-Weighted Citation Impact, and citation count were 4,922.50, 37.92, and 24.00, respectively. All articles were classified in the top 5% of scientific output [12], implying that these articles rank in the top 5% of more than 15.5 million research publications scored by Altmetrics. In other words, these articles have garnered the most attention. A majority of articles originated from China (n=32), followed by the United States (n=27; Table 2). In total, 22 articles were published by authors affiliated with institutions that have international cooperation. The article with the most Mendeley readers was a viewpoint article summarizing one of the largest case series describing patient characteristics from China (Mendeley reader=2581) [21]. The article with the most Dimension citations was the same study that had the highest citation count (Dimension citation number=2233) [22]. There was a total of 1,022,975 mentions of the social media platforms that were assessed; of these, Twitter had the most mentions of the selected articles at 96.3% (985,429/1,022,975). Additionally, 99 articles were open access. A positive correlation was observed between AAS and citation count (r2=0.0973; P=.002).

Table 1. Characteristics and components of the Top 100 COVID-19–related articles by Altmetric scorea.
Altmetric score, median (range)4922.50 (2841-33,828)
Traditional citation, median (range)c24.00 (0-1096)
News mentions, n (range)32,509 (1-2021)
Blog mentions, n (range)2630 (0-131)
Policy mentions, n (range)154 (0-21)
Twitter mentions, n (range)985,429 (1381-84,022)
Facebook mentions, n (range)1138 (0-58)
Wikipedia mentions, n (range)177 (0-11)
Reddit mentions, n (range)938 (0-40)
Mendeley readers, n (range)9283 (0-2581)
Dimension citations, n (range)18,011 (0-2233)
Article types, n (%)
Original investigation44 (44)
Correspondence31 (31)
Editorial14 (14)
Review4 (4)
Viewpoint6 (6)
Open access100 (100)
Study design of original investigations (n=44), n (%)
Clinical trials4 (9)
Prospective or retrospective cohort studies21 (48)
Cross-sectional1 (2)
Case series7 (16)
Basic science in vitro or in vivo studies8 (18)
Model validation studies3 (7)

aA total of 16 articles had a Field-Weighted Citation Impact of 0 because they did not have a score yet on Scopus at the time of the study and were not part of the analysis.

bTotal sum of all mentions for each article included in the study.

cThree articles did not have a citation count on Scopus or PubMed Central at the time of the study and were not part of the analysis.

Table 2. Top 100 Articles with the highest Altmetric Attention Scores according to country of origin.
CountryArticles, n
United States27
United Kingdom6
South Korea1
International collaboration22

In the past several months since COVID-19 has spread globally, many articles pertaining to the pandemic have been disseminated. Traditionally, high-quality and regarded articles can be ascertained via citation count; however, that is not always possible in a rapidly evolving pandemic such as the current one. This study identified and characterized the top 100 Altmetric articles related to COVID-19.

A majority of these top studies disseminated across social media platforms originated from authors from China. This is not surprising as COVID-19 originated from Wuhan, China. Within the 5-6 months that COVID-19 was discovered, the general public, as well as academic readers, was engaged in learning about the clinical characteristics of COVID-19 in China. It was surprising that the article that received the most attention per Altmetric was a correspondence letter analyzing the key features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome and theories of its origin [20]. This suggests that the public’s engagement in COVID-19–related research was increased in understanding the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic at that time. From a bibliometric perspective, The New England Journal of Medicine has been publishing articles with the highest collective AAS. This is not surprising as The New England Journal of Medicine is the highest-ranked general medicine journal [23]. Hence, the general public disseminates articles that are published in highly reputed journals across social media platforms the most.

Studies have previously shown that Altmetric scores are positively correlated with traditional citation count [14,24-28]. In the current literature, citation count has shown a weakly positive correlation with AAS. Interestingly, the current literature notes that journals with a high Twitter presence have a higher AAS, which our data also reinforce [29]. In our analysis, we observed that Twitter was the most frequently used social media platform and had the most mentions of our selected articles, which also aligns with previous findings [30]. All these studies have stated that altmetrics, including AAS, are most effectively used complementary to traditional bibliometrics and should not necessarily be used on their own to assess an article’s quality [4,7,10,11].

Interestingly, it is important to note that original articles, particularly observational cohort studies, were disseminated more quickly on social media platforms, while the top biomechanistic basic science article was also rapidly disseminated, most likely because this article addressed the possibility of SARS-CoV-2 being engineered in a laboratory [20]. Additionally, all the articles were open access and freely accessible to the general public likely because there is an alignment between scientists and the general public concerning the need to disseminate new findings related to COVID-19 as quickly as possible, given the enormous burden of this ongoing pandemic. With the access barrier removed, there is significantly greater availability than usual to read newly published articles and then disseminate them to peers.

There are several limitations to our study. This study analyzed the trend of COVID-19–related studies at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to show and assess what articles were extremely relevant to the general viewer at that time. Article types can change over time, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Additionally, our study only assessed the top 100 articles, which could have resulted in a selection bias. Other articles were not included for analysis because were not as trendy. Thus, the results may change with additional studies. We also only used Altmetric for analysis. Other altmetrics tools, including PlumX and Impact story, may use different algorithms in determining web-based impact. Altmetrics do not necessarily reflect the scientific quality of an article [14,31]. Just because an article generated more attention among the general public and academic community, it does not correlate with a better study design, results, or quality of evidence. AAS is more dynamic relative to citation count, making the precision, consistency, and reproducibility of Altmetric analysis challenging.

Our study did not evaluate altmetrics as part of a bigger image with epistemological and sociological tools outside of the platform information provided in Altmetrics Explorer. Future research in that direction may help enhance our understanding of altmetrics in COVID-19–related research.

In conclusion, our study characterized an early general public engagement of the top 100 Altmetric articles related to COVID-19. The top-most published articles shared across various platforms focused on the clinical characteristics of COVID-19 and exploring the origin of SARS-CoV-2. While altmetrics and citation count were weakly correlated, these 2 metrics are separate and unique such that they may augment the holistic understanding of an article’s impact when juxtaposed with each other.

Conflicts of Interest

None declared.

Multimedia Appendix 1

Comparison of journals and their total scores and mentions.

DOCX File , 27 KB

Multimedia Appendix 2

Articles and their Altmetric score and mentions.

DOCX File , 44 KB

  1. COVID-19 Dashboard. Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). URL: [accessed 2020-05-01]
  2. Mahase E. Coronavirus covid-19 has killed more people than SARS and MERS combined, despite lower case fatality rate. BMJ. Feb 18, 2020;368:m641. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  3. Song P, Karako T. COVID-19: Real-time dissemination of scientific information to fight a public health emergency of international concern. Biosci Trends. Mar 16, 2020;14(1):1-2. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  4. Patthi B. Altmetrics – a collated adjunct beyond citations for scholarly impact: a systematic review. JCDR. 2017 [CrossRef]
  5. Ventola C. Social media and health care professionals: benefits, risks, and best practices. P T. Jul 2014;39(7):491-520. [FREE Full text] [Medline]
  6. Campbell L, Evans Y, Pumper M, Moreno MA. Social media use by physicians: a qualitative study of the new frontier of medicine. BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. Jul 15, 2016;16(1):91. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  7. Peters I, Kraker P, Lex E, Gumpenberger C, Gorraiz J. Research data explored: an extended analysis of citations and altmetrics. Scientometrics. Feb 15, 2016;107(2):723-744. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  8. Priem JD, Taraborelli D, Groth P, Neylon C. Altmetrics: A manifesto. Altmetrics. 2010. URL: [accessed 2023-06-28]
  9. Priem J, Groth P, Taraborelli D. The altmetrics collection. PLoS One. Nov 1, 2012;7(11):e48753. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  10. Elmore SA. The Altmetric Attention Score: what does it mean and why should I care? Toxicol Pathol. Apr 15, 2018;46(3):252-255. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  11. Patel RB, Vaduganathan M, Bhatt DL, Bonow RO. Characterizing high-performing articles by Altmetric score in major cardiovascular journals. JAMA Cardiol. Dec 01, 2018;3(12):1249-1251. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  12. Haustein S, Costas R, Larivière V. Characterizing social media metrics of scholarly papers: the effect of document properties and collaboration patterns. PLoS One. Mar 17, 2015;10(3):e0120495. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  13. Jia JL, Nguyen B, Mills DE, Polin DJ, Sarin KY. Comparing online engagement and academic impact of dermatology research: An Altmetric Attention Score and PlumX Metrics analysis. J Am Acad Dermatol. Aug 2020;83(2):648-650. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  14. Parrish J, Jenkins N, Brundage T, Hrynewycz N, Singh K. The top 100 spine surgery articles on social media: an Altmetric study. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). Sep 01, 2020;45(17):1229-1238. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  15. Mugabushaka AN, van Eck NJ, Waltman L. Funding Covid-19 research: Insights from an exploratory analysis using open data infrastructures. arXiv. Preprint posted online February 23, 2022 [FREE Full text] [CrossRef]
  16. Ong EK, Lim CH, Wong AJ. The role of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ann Acad Med Singap. Jun 2020;49(6):408-410. [FREE Full text] [Medline]
  17. Ortega J. Disciplinary differences of the impact of altmetric. FEMS Microbiol Lett. Apr 01, 2018;365(7):09. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  18. Mendeley. Altmetric. 2020. URL: [accessed 2023-06-28]
  19. Dimensions Citation Data. Altmetric. 2020. URL: sions-citation-data [accessed 2023-06-28]
  20. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nat Med. Apr 17, 2020;26(4):450-452. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  21. Wu Z, McGoogan JM. Characteristics of and important lessons from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak in China: summary of a report of 72 314 cases from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. JAMA. Apr 07, 2020;323(13):1239-1242. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  22. Huang C, Wang Y, Li X, Ren L, Zhao J, Hu Y, et al. Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. The Lancet. Feb 2020;395(10223):497-506. [CrossRef]
  23. Falk Delgado A, Falk Delgado A. Home institution bias in the New England Journal of Medicine? A noninferiority study on citation rates. Scientometrics. Nov 18, 2018;115(1):607-611. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  24. Maggio LA, Leroux TC, Meyer HS, Artino AR. #MedEd: exploring the relationship between altmetrics and traditional measures of dissemination in health professions education. Perspect Med Educ. Aug 12, 2018;7(4):239-247. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  25. Chang J, Desai N, Gosain A. Correlation between Altmetric score and citations in pediatric surgery core journals. J Surg Res. Nov 2019;243:52-58. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  26. Nocera AP, Boyd CJ, Boudreau H, Hakim O, Rais-Bahrami S. Examining the correlation between Altmetric score and citations in the urology literature. Urology. Dec 2019;134:45-50. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  27. Amath A, Ambacher K, Leddy JJ, Wood TJ, Ramnanan CJ. Comparing alternative and traditional dissemination metrics in medical education. Med Educ. Sep 18, 2017;51(9):935-941. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  28. Ruan QZ, Chen AD, Cohen JB, Singhal D, Lin SJ, Lee BT. Alternative metrics of scholarly output: the relationship among Altmetric score, Mendeley Reader score, citations, and downloads in plastic and reconstructive surgery. Plast Reconstr Surg. Mar 2018;141(3):801-809. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  29. Dardas LA, Woodward A, Scott J, Xu H, Sawair FA. Measuring the social impact of nursing research: an insight into altmetrics. J Adv Nurs. Jul 24, 2019;75(7):1394-1405. [CrossRef] [Medline]
  30. Eysenbach G. Can tweets predict citations? Metrics of social impact based on Twitter and correlation with traditional metrics of scientific impact. J Med Internet Res. Dec 19, 2011;13(4):e123. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]
  31. Bornmann L, Haunschild R. Do altmetrics correlate with the quality of papers? A large-scale empirical study based on F1000Prime data. PLoS One. May 23, 2018;13(5):e0197133. [FREE Full text] [CrossRef] [Medline]

AAS: Altmetric Attention Score

Edited by A Mavragani; submitted 24.07.22; peer-reviewed by V Guardabasso, Y Bu, M Khazaneha; comments to author 20.01.23; revised version received 17.03.23; accepted 23.05.23; published 12.07.23.


©Haley Tornberg, Carine Moezinia, Chapman Wei, Simone A Bernstein, Chaplin Wei, Refka Al-Beyati, Theodore Quan, David J Diemert. Originally published in JMIR Formative Research (, 12.07.2023.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in JMIR Formative Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.