Writer, editor, dentist

The Editor of the British Dental Journal talks to the Journal of the Irish Dental Association to reflect on a working life that is unusually, and perhaps uniquely, split between dentistry and writing.

Dr Stephen Hancocks has been Editor of the British Dental Journal (BDJ) since 2004. Given that this is the 150th year of continuous publication of the BDJ, it is fair to say that it is a position of considerable esteem in the profession. However, it is no accident that Stephen ended up in a writing role. Indeed, had his heart ruled his head when he left school, he would have gone to drama school rather than dental school.
So how did that happen? A day spent observing his local dentist when Stephen was 13 turned into a Saturday morning job as a dental nurse for that very dentist. The ten shillings per week was a fortune and despite Stephen’s great love for all things performance and theatrical, he realised that a steady income as a dentist would give him the chance to return to the theatre at a later stage.
He was right, so he trained as a dentist at University College Hospital London and kept up the writing in his spare time. The year he graduated, he sent some writing in the post to the Head of Scripts at BBC Television, Ian Davidson. To his great surprise, he got a letter by reply asking him to get in touch. He did and that led to a series of successful commissions for both radio and television, with the particular joy of writing for The Two Ronnies. (For those readers under a certain age, The Two Ronnies was a hugely successful primetime BBC television comedy show starring Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker.)
All through this period though, Stephen continued to practise dentistry. He worked in community and children’s dentistry in and around London, including a two-and-a-half year stint as a registrar at the Eastman Dental Institute. If he became very busy with writing, he reverted occasionally to part-time dentistry.
An incursion into dental writing happened in the early 1980s when the Fédération Dentaire Internationale (FDI) advertised in the BDJ for someone to provide clinical summaries of papers published in various journals for their newsletter.
A few years later, the then Editor of the BDJ, Dr Margaret Seward, invited him to write for the BDJ. Then both bodies needed Assistant Editors for publications in their portfolios and Stephen succeeded in gaining the two positions – both part-time. He was still practising dentistry right up until the early 1990s when the FDI (under a new Director) decided to recruit a full-time publishing manager. Stephen worked happily through the 1990s for the FDI until he found an opportunity to return to drama school. In 1999, he went to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where he undertook an MA specialising in writing. A life spent writing plays and scripts beckoned until, in late 2004, an unexpected opportunity arose to apply for the top role at the BDJ. It arose because the BDJ was moving to a new publishing agreement between the British Dental Association (BDA) and Nature/Springer. He was appointed and has been in position ever since.

Content across specialties
What in his view does the BDJ do best? He sees the ability of the BDJ portfolio of publications to provide useful content across a spectrum of areas (clinical, research, practice management, etc.) through a variety of channels as giving great value to each of the readerships it serves. He especially points to the development of BDJ Open in 2015, which describes itself as a peer-reviewed, open-access, online-only journal publishing dental and oral health research from all disciplines.
The journal is owned by the BDA and is the sister journal of the BDJ. Stephen says that BDJ Open has been particularly successful in attracting international readership. It is a prime example of how the BDJ is in fact now a portfolio of six different titles with a mixture of print and online presences. He is most encouraged by the development of themed issues and sees that as a possible approach to a ‘BDJ Perio’ or ‘BDJ Ortho’ as a template for the provision of well-collated/curated content on any given area of specialisation in dentistry.
His biggest ambition for the BDJ is that it continues to develop its portfolio, including through the use of themed issues.

A century and a half
In the meantime, the BDJ continues to celebrate 150 years of continuous publication, including right through both world wars. This year, the BDJ selected 12 papers that had been published originally and which they deemed to be of historic significance. They asked 12 experts (one each for the areas relevant to a specific paper) to assess the significance of each paper and to describe the influence it had in changing dentistry. They also asked the experts to imagine what would have happened if the paper had not been published.
Every expert who was invited to carry out this task accepted – which was much to Stephen’s surprise and satisfaction. As each paper was being worked on, an original piece of art to illustrate the cover of that edition was commissioned from Rachel Jackson, an artist who had trained as a dental nurse, then a dental hygienist and then a dentist. She, in turn, decided to create her artwork in a style that was popular at the time the paper was published.

Dental communication
Stephen believes that dentists don’t talk to each other enough. One potential positive aspect of the pandemic was that dentists had to communicate with each other for obvious reasons and the advent of Zoom and other electronic means of communicating have been helpful – but he hopes it will be maintained. The move to multi-seat practices and multi-practice dental groups is generally helpful in alleviating the isolation that some dentists can experience in practice.

Practising dentistry
Having been involved full-time in writing or editing in some form or other since the early 1990s, Stephen has not practised dentistry since then. He doesn’t miss it apart from interacting with his patients and following their lives.

Good dentists
Perhaps most appropriately, Stephen has a clear view on what makes a good dentist: “I actually think it’s someone that communicates well. It’s the chairside manner. I had a wonderful mentor whose patients adored him because he cared and he was a very good communicator. I think a very good dentist – or any professional – is someone who can communicate well”.

On science communication
“The one thing that science writers don’t do well is think about their target audience. Science writers are trained to write for other scientists, but in fact we often need to translate that information into normal language.”

On the pandemic
“We normally get about 600 papers a year but in 2020 (during the pandemic) we received 1,500 papers. It became overwhelming. I coped with the help of a great partner and by gardening.”

On the JIDA
“I think the covers are fabulous, and I don’t detect any material difference between the conversations that are happening in the JIDA and the BDJ.”

On his upbringing
“I was born and lived in Hemel Hempstead about 25 miles north of London. It was a happy upbringing in which I knew from an early age that I wanted to be involved in performing or acting or involved in the theatre in some way.”

Paul O’Grady
Director at Think Media Ltd