© 2017 British Society of Soil Science For the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of the British Society of Soil Science, this short paper explores the idea that research on soil organic matter has remained a central theme within soil science over the past 70 years, albeit with changing emphasis and application. The number of publications on soil organic matter has increased greatly in recent decades; for example, there were almost 35 000 journal papers with this theme in the decade 2007–2016. Several topics in research on soil organic matter, such as soil fertility, have endured for a number of decades, with publications found on soil organic matter and fertility in the decade 1947–1956. A search with other keywords occurring with soil, such as climate change, biodiversity, fertility, quality, health and security, showed that several topics did not appear before the 1970s and 1980s, but since then the sub-topics and applications have diversified. Carbon is a keyword that has become more associated with publications on soil organic matter; carbon is in over half of soil organic matter publications of the last decade. A closer examination of research on agricultural soil carbon sequestration since 1990 reveals that the focus of papers in the literature has changed over this period. A closer examination of papers on modelling shows that the next generation of soil organic matter models is developing from pseudo first-order decay models using conceptual pools and prescribed controls of turnover time to vertically resolved, microbially explicit models representing mineral surface and plant interactions. Given its higher policy profile during the last 2 years, research on soil organic matter and soil carbon sequestration is predicted to have a bright future. Highlights: The number of publications on soil organic matter has increased greatly in recent decades. Soil fertility research has endured for many decades, whereas other topics have diversified. Soil organic matter has been increasingly associated with carbon, which has changed the focus of papers since 1990. Expanding policy attention to soil organic matter research during the last 2 years suggests a bright future.