The potential to capture the societal impact of research has been a driving motivation for the use and development of altmetrics. Yet, to date, altmetrics have largely failed to deliver on this potential because the primary audience that cites research on social media has been shown to be academics themselves. In response, our study investigates an extension of traditional altmetric approaches that goes beyond capturing direct mentions of research on social media. Using research articles from the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study, we demonstrate the value of measuring “second-order citations,” or social media mentions of news coverage of research. We find that a sample of these citations, published by just five media outlets, were shared and engaged with on social media twice as much as the research articles themselves. Moreover, first-order and second-order citations circulated among Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts that were largely distinct from each other. The differences in audiences and engagement patterns found in this case study provide strong evidence that investigating these second-order citations can be an effective way of observing overlooked audiences who engage with research content on social media.

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Author notes

Handling Editor: Rodrigo Costas

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