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The BELS Certification—What Is It and How Does It Help?

The Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS) is a professional body in the United States that was established in 1991. BELS is mainly known for its certification examination: a proctored, 3-hour, multiple-choice examination for copyeditors who wish to be certified. If you pass the exam, you get a certificate and you may use the letters “ELS” after your name, that is, “Editor in the Life Sciences.” You’re also added to the BELS roster of certified editors. Certification does not expire—once you’re certified, you’re always certified. After certification you can opt to become a supporting member of BELS, which costs just $25 per year, but this is not mandatory.

The first step toward certification is to apply to take the certification exam. Usually at least 2 years of full-time copyediting experience is needed to even qualify for the exam. If you qualify you’ll receive a study guide with sample questions. See the BELS website for more information.

I took the BELS exam in Boston in 2007. I found the exam questions neither too easy nor too difficult, but what was difficult was the exam environment: sitting at a stretch for 3 hours answering multiple-choice questions! It had been many years since I sat for an exam like that, and other editors who have completed formal education a long time back might feel a similar discomfort. A few weeks after taking the exam, I saw a big envelope in my mailbox—it was the BELS certificate!

In late 2008, BELS conducted the first certification examination in India. I believe the exam has since been conducted every year in Mumbai. So if you’re a copyeditor working with scientific texts in India, you may be able to take the exam here!

Now the big question: how does BELS certification help?

Some caveats first:

(1) You should consider taking the exam only if you edit scientific manuscripts, preferably in the life sciences. Otherwise you may not be adequately prepared for the exam, or even if you get certified you may not be able to find much use for the certification.

(2) Clients or employers may not have heard about the BELS certification, although language editing companies are usually aware of it. While it may feel good to add “ELS” after your name, not many people might know what it means! So be prepared to explain the meaning of the certification!

(3) The inner workings of the BELS certification exam are a secret. For example, information on the passing score for the exam is hard to come by, and if you take the exam you won’t be told how much you scored.

In my opinion, copyeditors of scientific texts are increasingly being expected to have subject-area qualifications and research experience. The big language editing companies all say their editors have such backgrounds, and many seem to have master’s and PhD degrees.

However, the profession of copyediting has traditionally had a different basis: in this world, copyediting is about being able to deal with a variety of texts without necessarily having subject-area expertise in those fields. BELS and other editors’ societies like the SfEP have membership or certification systems based on copyediting expertise in the traditional sense, not specialist knowledge or advanced degrees.

The BELS certification, I think, is advantageously at the intersection of the traditional copyediting world and the relatively new, commercial world of presubmission manuscript editing. Obtaining the certification would help to establish yourself in both these worlds.

This certification may also help for careers in scientific communication in general, beyond copyediting. For example, soon after getting certified I started teaching scientific writing, and I think the BELS certification has helped, at least to indicate that I have a certification that’s related to this niche area of work.

I would certainly encourage copyeditors who work with scientific texts to consider taking the BELS exam. All the information you need is on the BELS website. You can also follow BELS on Facebook and Twitter.

Ravi Murugesan is a teacher of scientific writing and works with online learning platforms. He is the owner of Wide Learning, a firm in Mumbai.

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