Posted by: bluesyemre | March 15, 2020

The #altmetrics of #Coronavirus (How #research has shaped our understanding) by #CatWilliams


Coronavirus (or COVID-19 as it is now formally known) first emerged in central China in December 2019. Since then, news of its spread has dominated media headlines around the world. As of 17 February 2020, 71,450 people are estimated to have contracted the virus, and for more than 1,700 people it has proved fatal.

The research world has been quick to react, with reports of teams around the globe in a race to develop vaccines, and scholarly publishers opening up their related content so it is freely accessible for anyone to read.

By exploring the Altmetric data around COVID-19, we can start to understand how the scholarly research on this new disease is influencing our understanding of what the emergence of this new threat means for our society, and see how that work is already influencing policy around the world.

Early research

A search in the Dimensions database, which includes preprints and datasets alongside more traditional research outputs such as journal articles, for 2019-nCoV and some of its written variants (“ncov-2019” OR “COVID-19” OR “2019-ncov” OR “2019 novel coronavirus”) from 2019 and 2020 showcases how much information is already out there; 304 journal publications, 143 preprints, and 14 datasets, all in the short time since the first confirmed case.

Several of the papers published this year are already extensively cited – “Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China”, published in The Lancet, has received over 96 references to date, and a second early study “A Novel Coronavirus from Patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019” in NEJM has been cited 82 times since it was published.

A closer look at the citing research categories of that second paper in particular highlights the cross-disciplinary nature of the research that is now needed to tackle the spread of the virus, with one paper in particular discussing “The Role of Augmented Intelligence (AI) in Detecting and Preventing the Spread of Novel Coronavirus“.

A trending topic

Looking in the Altmetric Explorer, we can quickly and easily see how the conversation around this topic grew rapidly as news of the virus spread: Interestingly (although perhaps unsurprisingly), the publications that feature most in the discussions we see reflected in the Explorer differ from those which are most cited by other scholars – with the exception of the top-cited and mentioned Lancet paper, and another that looks at early transitioned dynamics:

Why might this be? You’ll notice in the list there that the top Altmetric-scoring publication is a pre-print, reflecting the huge influence that these forms of publications can have, long before the resulting journal publication is formally cited. This particular preprint has scored so highly because it was actually at the center of a controversy; it had serious errors and was retracted within a day. Unfortunately, although the researchers did the right thing in responding quickly, it was linked to a conspiracy theory that coronavirus was a man-made weapon, and mentions quickly grew. In the Altmetric Explorer you can see the spike in mentions between the February 1 paper release, and its retraction on February 3.

Looking at some of the other top papers in the Altmetric list, we should note that it’s common in Altmetric data to see the most-mentioned research in fields or on topics that people can personally relate to – this is reflected every year in the Annual Top 100 list. In the Top 5 list here, the third most-mentioned publication is an article from NEJM that highlights the first case of Coronavirus found in the US, and the fifth most-mentioned features the spread of the disease in Germany.

This is likely a reflection of many factors – the most dominant of them being that the sources Altmetric tracks (particularly social media) are predominantly Western – due to data limitations and restrictions on others. It makes sense, therefore, that Western audiences are quick to discuss and share research that details a threat much closer to home.

Who’s engaging?

Altmetric tracks a huge range of sources; social media (including Twitter, Facebook and Reddit), the mainstream media (from over 5,000 outlets around the World), Wikipedia, Youtube and blogs – and also over 85 policy outlets, making it possible to see where academic work is having a influence on policies being issued by Government, NGOs and think tanks.

From the Altmetric data, we can see that the Coronavirus research in our search has already had a huge amount of engagement – over 4,300 mentions in the mainstream media, more than 175,000 shares on Twitter, 111 references from Wikipedia, and over 40 videos that have directly linked to research publications.

All of this plays a huge part in shaping the public understanding of the virus, and new ‘influencers’, who are sharing this work the most or have the ability to reach the biggest audiences, are quickly emerging.

@OutbreakScience, self-described as ‘a nonprofit to advance the science of outbreak response’ has been the most active sharer of this research in our search – but the account is currently followed by just 611 others. Arguably more influential, the recently created twitter account @PneumoniaWuhan, the second most active sharer of this research – has already amassed over 14,000 followers.

Organizational accounts of the WHO, WIRED and Nature News, which between them have over 18 million followers, have also been active participants in making this research more visible to a much wider audience. Individuals such as @OlaAlfares and @takapon_jp, each with millions of followers, have retweeted posts from others that highlight new discoveries and unique aspects of COVID-19 that are likely to be of interest to the audience they engage with via Twitter:

The global spread of these conversations is reflected particularly strongly in the demographic data we are able to gather from news articles that mention relevant research: Looking in more detail at the datasets in our search, it’s interesting to see that scientists themselves have taken to social media to both make the data easily accessible and to quickly gather feedback:

Developing policies

Governments around the world have been quick to recognise the potentially devastating impacts of COVID-19, and many have worked quickly to develop new policies and procedures to ensure that its spread is contained.

In Altmetric, we see this activity (and research’s role in it) reflected in citations to publications from policy documents – already 2 from the CDC (here and here), one from the Congressional Research Service, and one set of UK Parliament Briefing notes have cited original research. These documents focus on the transmission and national response to the virus, and play a vital role in shaping the decisions that will be made in handling the outbreak.

Blogging the future

Beyond social media sharing and more formal policy documents, bloggers and Wikipedia Editors are translating scholarly work into articles that are more accessible to a general audience. Opinion pieces that question government-issued updatesprovide a critique of governments’ handling of the situation and raise awareness of new clinical trials and other developments to help combat further spread all feature amongst the topics of these posts.

Blogs highlight, in many cases, what news and public policy do not yet address: worst case scenarioscalls for intergovernmental cooperation, and an awareness of how the media itself may be fuelling panic.

biorXiv preprint from a team of Chinese scholars is currently the most-referenced Coronavirus article published this year on Wikipedia – ably demonstrating how the advent of the preprint server is changing where and at which point in the publication (and peer review) process and wide public audience is informed by academic research.

Looking to the future

How and how fast COVID-19 continues to spread is yet to be seen – and it is likely that the public discourse around the research in the space will change over time. With a rush to publish and find a cure, at least some of the papers much referenced and shared today will likely be retracted under further scrutiny – raising the interesting question of whether, in a scenario like this, research is better done fast or done better.

We’ll continue to monitor these conversations via the Altmetric Explorer – and fully expect to see at least one of two of these papers pop up in our Top 100 list at the end of the year.

If you’re keen to follow along or do some investigation of your own, get in touch with our team to find out about Explorer access today.

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