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?
Obama is not the first sitting US president to publish an academic journal article.
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."
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.
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.
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.
- The repetition of the story by reputable news outlets who normally do a decent job fact checking. For example Fortune magazine, Science, The Independent
- 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.
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.