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The 30th anniversary of Sociology of Health and Illness falls in 2008 and is an appropriate point at which to reflect on the journal's achievements and future direction. In this issue we publish two articles which extend this reflection to medical sociology as a whole. The first, by Timmermans and Haas (‘Towards a sociology of disease’) argues that the future of medical sociology should involve a renewal of interest in how specific diseases and their biological characteristics interact with social contexts. Timmermans and Haas argue that this will connect sociological studies more directly with the normative purpose of health care to influence the progress of disease, without compromising the independence of the sociological voice.

The second paper, by Seale (‘Mapping the field of medical sociology: a comparative analysis of journals’) reports a comparative content analysis of leading journals of sociology and medical sociology in the UK and USA, finding points of difference between American and British traditions, and between the theoretical and political pre-occupations of medical and other sociologists. Seale argues that one future direction for the sociology of health and illness might lie in a greater exploration of health issues from a social problems perspective, and at societal and global levels, so that some of the preoccupations of general sociologists with the impacts of globalisation, migration, citizenship, human and civil rights are more fully integrated into the field.

In their different ways, these authors are writing about a sub-discipline that has become well established in its methods and theories, and can now seek greater public relevance, becoming more outward-looking than perhaps it has been in the past. Timmermans and Haas believe a focus on disease rather than illness will improve the relevance of medical sociology for clinical endeavours, without medical sociologists necessarily becoming subservient ‘handmaidens’ to medicine. Seale argues for a more international medical sociology that increasingly incorporates authors outside English-speaking and European countries, noting the relatively greater success of other health disciplines in achieving global participation and relevance.

In 1979 when Sociology of Health and Illness was founded, the journal was conceived as a place where, in particular, theoretically informed qualitative studies might be published. At that time there were few outlets for sociologists wanting to publish such work and the journal provided an important new platform, becoming central to the subsequent development of the discipline in the United Kingdom, and of increasing importance to medical sociologists in the USA and elsewhere. Now, of course, such work is offered a place in a variety of journals, so the need to reserve a special place for it in this journal has diminished. Theoretically informed quantitative studies also have an important part to play in developing the sociology of health and illness, as well as work which mixes methods.

We took on the editorship of the journal in October 2006 and, supported by our editorial board, Trustees and publishers, changed the ‘aims and scope’ statement that appears prominently on our web site. It now conveys the message that we are interested in submissions of work which use the full variety of methods and conceptual frameworks available to medical sociologists worldwide. We welcome contributions that are judged through the process of peer review to deliver robust, original and significant messages for the field, regardless of methodological orientation. Our revised ‘aims and scope’ statement therefore now says:

Sociology of Health & Illness is an international journal which publishes sociological articles on all aspects of health, illness, medicine and health care. We welcome empirical and theoretical contributions in this field.

Within this definition we publish several kinds of contribution:

  • 1
    Original research reports, which may be empirical and theoretical
  • 2
    Review articles providing an analytic summary of the literature on a subject within the sociology of health, illness, medicine and health care
  • 3
    Book reviews

In addition, research reports and review articles may be included in an annual monograph issue, a special issue of the journal devoted to a unified theme edited by guest editors and managed by the Sociology of Health and Illness monograph series editor (currently Hannah Bradby, who will respond to proposals for new monographs). Monographs began in 1995 and over the years have helped shape the discipline of medical sociology, bringing emerging areas to wider attention and pointing in new directions. On taking on the editorship, and with support from the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness, we have begun a series of ‘launch’ conferences associated with the publication of monographs, the first of which was held in December 2007 at the University of Warwick as an academic meeting to mark the publication of the 14th monograph on ‘Ethnicity, Health and Health Care’. The 2008 monograph on ‘Pharmaceuticals and Society: Critical Discourses and Debates’ will also be associated with a launch conference, to be advertised in the journal.

Review articles are an innovation which we hope will become a regular feature of the journal. With a field whose scope is ever-expanding, academic journals like ours can provide a valuable service to readers by providing state-of-the-art overviews of the literature on established or emerging topics, written by leading experts. They are a way in which particular areas can be brought to prominence, analysed and developed. We see them, too, as an opportunity for contributions from new geographical regions where the field is developing rapidly but where scholars are not yet published routinely in our journal. Those interested in writing review articles, which are subject to peer review as for research papers submitted to the journal, should contact the review articles editor (currently Steven Wainwright) with their proposal.

In addition to research articles, monographs and review articles, our book review section continues to keep readers informed of the latest books in medical sociology and related fields. Currently managed by our book review editor, Mildred Blaxter, we decided against the policy of some other journals which have recently ceased to publish book reviews. Sociology is a discipline that advances through books as much as journal articles; indeed this is one of the major strengths of a discipline that seeks to provide a deeply reflective and analytic perspective on social life. It contrasts with some other disciplines in the health field, whose overwhelming concentration on brief journal articles as the chief means of publication reflects a research practice that is heavily data-driven but often conceptually thin.

Our publishers, Wiley-Blackwell, have also worked with us to create a redesigned web site for the journal. Access to the journal, for most readers, is nowadays electronic so we recognise the importance of providing readers with additional facilities through this route. Information on the site is now presented in a much clearer format and is easier to navigate. We are also adding ‘virtual special issues’ to the web site, these being collections of articles from our content archive that share a theme, with an editorial which assesses their contribution to the field, guiding our readers to some of the most significant work within a theme that has been published by the journal. In 2008 we will be launching a discussion forum on the site where readers can post responses to papers or book reviews and exchange views with authors and editors.

We have, during the period of our editorship, become more demanding of authors in requiring the submission of articles that are within our recommended maximum length of 8,000 words, though we are happy to consider longer articles where a good case is made. The effect of this, and the expansion in page size of the journal, has increased the number of articles and authors that we are able to publish each year from 41–45 papers per year in 2004–6 to 56 papers published in 2007. This is also facilitated by the energetic commitment to exact page budgeting of our editorial assistant, Liz Ackroyd, whose efforts ensure that not a page allowed to us by our publisher goes unused!

When articles are submitted to the journal we initially assess them for relevance to the sociology of health and illness and for a basic level of quality, including a judgement as to their originality. Each article is assigned to an editor who oversees this initial judgement and then, if the paper is recommended for further consideration, locates two or more referees with relevant expertise. Our referees, who freely and generously provide this service to our academic community, return their reports and recommendations for our consideration. We are acutely aware of authors’ need for us to reach decisions within a reasonable amount of time, but we also rely on the goodwill and commitment of our unpaid referees to provide their reviews without lengthy delays. We have been pleased to note that the average time now taken to reach a final decision on a paper now stands at 65 days, having been 70 days in October 2006.

Of course, many papers are not recommended for publication. At present we can only accept about 25 per cent of papers that are submitted. But one of the particular features of the journal which authors have frequently brought to our attention is the exceptional quality of feedback from our referees, which is often of assistance in revising and improving a paper for publication elsewhere. The number of authors whose work we accept who then want to acknowledge the assistance of anonymous referees in improving their papers is also a testimony to the skill and commitment of our reviewers.

Where a paper is recommended for publication we know that it is important to authors, and to readers, that there is as little delay as possible in bringing it to publication. When we took on the editorship in 2006, the delay between acceptance and print publication stood at 18 months. With the expansion of the page size and the general shortening of articles, together with close monitoring of the length of this ‘queue’ and the impact on it of ‘acceptance’ decisions, this wait has been brought down to 11 months. Even this, of course, is a long time, so we are pleased with our implementation of ‘Online Early’ publication, whereby an article is posted on the Synergy website that hosts the journal's content well before publication in the print issue. Publication in Online Early is recognised as a citable publication using the article's DOI (Digital Object Identifier), which stays with the article throughout its life.

Sociology of Health and Illness is published by Wiley-Blackwell and owned by the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness, who use their income from the journal both to support the editorial office and to promote the development of medical sociology by funding conferences, studentships, seminar series and other initiatives (see: http://www.shifoundation.org.uk). Additionally, the journal is supported by an editorial board and assisted by international editorial advisors, a group that is expanding with the recent addition of new members from previously unrepresented regions of the world. We thank them all for the support they have given us during our editorship thus far.

The editorship of the journal is a fixed-term appointment made by the editorial board and we feel fortunate to be the successors to a long line of distinguished and talented editors and editorial teams. We hope that our stewardship of the journal will maintain and improve its standing so that it continues to be the first choice for publications by the world's leading sociologists of health and illness, and essential reading for all.