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I have read a few sources claiming that Obama's JAMA paper published this month was the first academic journal article authored by a sitting president. Is that true?

Example:

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    I'vem edited the question to reflect the claim in the tweet. Otherwise we would have to close as "not a notable claim". – DJClayworth Jul 22 '16 at 13:40
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Obama is not the first sitting US president to publish an academic journal article.

In September 1897, William McKinley (25th) published an article in the American Annals of the Deaf.

The American Annals of the Deaf is

a professional journal dedicated to quality in education and related services for deaf or hard of hearing children and adults. First published in 1847, the Annals is the oldest and most widely read English-language journal dealing with deafness and the education of deaf persons.

The journal is also peer-reviewed. I couldn't directly find it on the journal's website. However, this archiving project claims to only archive peer-reviewed journals and does indeed archive the American Annals of the Deaf.

I would say that for the above reasons, the journal meets the requirement of "academic."

William McKinley was president from March 4, 1897 until his assassination on September 14, 1901. As such, the journal article was published during his presidency. William McKinley was also president before Obama, making McKinley the first US sitting president to publish an academic journal article.

Note: @StrongBad says the "article was written by the board of directors of the Columbia Institute and I think the President was the defacto chair."

On March 13, 1908, Theodore Roosevelt (26th) published an article in Science. Science is academic by most standards. From their website:

Today, Science continues to publish the very best in research across the sciences, with articles that consistently rank among the most cited in the world.

Theodore Roosevelt was president from September 14, 1901 to March 4, 1909. As such, the article was published during Roosevelt's presidency.

Was Obama's JAMA paper the first academic journal article authored by a sitting president?

No. Obama's JAMA paper is not the first academic journal article authored by a sitting president.

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    Interesting, thanks for the investigation! – Franck Dernoncourt May 11 at 18:53
  • @FranckDernoncourt You're welcome! I personally was curious. That's what made me look. – Barry Harrison May 11 at 18:54
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    I disagree with this answer and I'll add that the person answering it asked in the Academia.SE chat whether these were 'journal articles' without context and I think got a misleading response because of it. The Roosevelt article in Science for example looks like it's publishing a letter written to the House and Senate. – Bryan Krause May 11 at 18:58
  • @BryanKrause I the McKinley article was written by the board of directors of the Columbia Institute and I think the President was the defacto chair (I think that may still be the case) so I don't think qualifies in the same sense. – StrongBad May 11 at 19:03
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    On a second thought, I think this answer could be okay but I think it needs some contextualization around those publications, how they relate to modern academic journal articles, and the difference between types of articles that journals publish. – Bryan Krause May 11 at 19:13
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Not in my opinion

I would challenge the claim that it is a scholarly article. See this LA Times article for an opposing view:

Obviously, JAMA held the president to a different, lower standard than it would an academic scientist. In fact, JAMA editor-in-chief Howard Bauchner admitted as much. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, he said that Obama’s article was peer reviewed, but that he was allowed “a bit more flexibility because of who he is.” He also acknowledged that “we don’t fact-check every fact.”

Also, the tone was problematic:

Far more troubling is the president’s tone, which is often self-congratulatory. “I am proud of the policy changes in the [Affordable Care Act],” he writes, “and the progress that has been made toward a more affordable, high-quality, and accessible healthcare system.”

The technical name for Obama's article was a special communication:

Well, we paused. It’s the first time certainly since I’ve been here that a sitting president has called — he’s been the only sitting president since I’ve been here, about five years — and said he’d like to write something for JAMA. For us, in some ways, it was similar to how we get queries for all special communications. Occasionally we’ll reach out to people if we have a specific idea, but I probably get a query a week about a group or someone who would like to write a special communication. In that regard, it was quite similar to other queries.

The Journal of the American Medical Association is a serious, peer reviewed journal. It is generally full of scholarly papers. They made an exception for Obama here. Although others get similar exceptions, I believe that that invalidates the claim:

Was Obama's JAMA paper the first scholarly article authored by a sitting president?

Note that the claim on Twitter was slightly weaker:

Obama becomes first sitting president to publish academic journal article

It's an article. It's in an academic journal. Obama is a sitting president. But if that's the all it takes there were at least two previous publications. Note that the Obama article was also ghostwritten, so that particular criticism of the McKinley article wouldn't make the Obama article first.

In general, I would be careful here. The president most likely to have had a truly scholarly article published was James Garfield, although the shortness of his tenure makes it unlikely that he was sitting at the time. Woodrow Wilson also had an academic background.

A similar question was asked on Academia.SE.

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    I've edited the question so that it's only asking about 'academic journal article', which was the original claim. – DJClayworth Jul 22 '16 at 13:41
  • I've edited this answer to leave the part that focuses on the now on-topic rewording of the question and consequently, the notable claim. – user30557 Jul 22 '16 at 17:02
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No. The linked article in JAMA is a "Special Communications" and most academics would not describe this as a "academic journal article" reserving that distinction for articles falling under the category of "research".

  • Good point! I never thought about it that way before. – Barry Harrison May 11 at 19:16
  • The way one could view it is "academic journal article" = article published in a academic journal. Some are in the research track, some are in the perspective track, in the correspondence track, etc. E.g. see academic.oup.com/jamia/pages/General_Instructions (mirror). But I agree that typically academic journal articles are research articles, and it's a good point to underline Obama's JAMA paper wasn't a research paper. – Franck Dernoncourt May 11 at 19:24
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It's hard to prove a first, because you have to prove that it has never happened before. However the preponderance of evidence seems to be in favour of it. The evidence comes in two kinds.

  1. The repetition of the story by reputable news outlets who normally do a decent job fact checking. For example Fortune magazine, Science, The Independent
  2. The almost complete absence of right wing media pointing out that this is not true. You know if there was a way to be attacking the President on this they would be doing it.
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    My impression of most of the criticism that I'm reading about it is not that he was first to be published, but whether it should have been published at all. Most critics seem concerned with the apparent conflation of politics and science. LA Times is a good example. – fredsbend Jul 25 '16 at 19:04
  • This video from Fortune says it wasn't even peer reviewed. My point here is that right wing media will more likely come to criticize that he was the first to do this (i.e. they would say "only Obama would have to gall to pretend to be a scientist" (I guess they would quickly forget about Al Gore)), if they aren't already saying this. – fredsbend Jul 25 '16 at 19:10
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    Our own Academia.SE has discussed these issues, it seems. – fredsbend Jul 25 '16 at 19:26
  • Whether it should have been published is off-topic. Predicting what right wing media might do is off-topic. – user30557 Jul 26 '16 at 5:44
  • What about the question of whether Obama truly authored it? Is that a separate question? I have no evidence one way or the other, but I strongly suspect it was mostly ghost-written. – Ask About Monica Jul 26 '16 at 17:07
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James Garfield published a short, apparently original, proof of the Pythagorean Theorem in the April 1, 1876 issue (see lower left) of the New-England Journal of Education. He was not elected President until 1880, though, and it’s more a note than a major paper. (Found from here.)

The journal itself appears to be a precursor to the Journal of Education, which I believe is peer-reviewed and prestigious.

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