Going for the ‘BELS’ and Whistles

I first became aware of the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS) a few years ago after receiving my IPEd accreditation. I am a strong supporter of accreditation for editors and was looking for an accreditation that would highlight my skills in editing scientific content. A few editors recommended I look into BELS, and in January 2015 it was announced that a BELS exam would be offered in Australia.

BELS was established by editors in the United States in 1991 in order to offer an accreditation specific to manuscript editors in the life sciences. Just as in Australia, life science editors in the United States come into their roles through a number of different journeys; many of those journeys do not involve formal education or benchmarked criteria. The BELS goal was to ‘award credentials similar to those obtainable in other professions’.

To this end, BELS created a certification program incorporating three different credentials: Editor in the Life Sciences (ELS), Diplomate Editor in the Life Sciences and Honored Editor in the Life Sciences. The first of these, Editor in the Life Sciences, is also referred to as certification and is achieved by passing a three-hour, multiple-choice exam.

Before taking the exam a potential candidate must first apply to BELS and demonstrate they meet a number of criteria, such as having a bachelor’s degree or at least two years of experience as a manuscript editor in the life sciences. The application must be accompanied by a resume or curriculum vitae, three letters of reference from employers or clients, and supporting documentation. There is also an application fee of US$50.

Realising there was a lot of work to do in getting together my supporting documentation and three letters of reference, I started ringing clients right away. Getting letters of reference in a timely manner can be a bit of a challenge.

Once I sent off my application form I heard back from BELS within a day or two advising me that I was eligible to take the exam. I then had to register for the exam (at least three weeks before the exam date) and pay the exam fee of US$200. A few weeks later I received my ticket of admission to the exam via the post.

Preparing for the exam was a bit tricky because candidates are provided with only a study guide, which is available on the BELS website. The study guide explains the format of the exam and the topics tested, as well as providing 22 sample questions. Given the actual exam has about 100 questions, I felt this preparatory material was much less than what we are given to prepare for the IPEd accreditation exam (two sample exams).

I attempted the sample questions in an exam-like environment to see how many I got correct and what time it took me. I knew that timing would be a critical issue because you have only 2 hours and 45 minutes of actual exam time to answer all of the multiple-choice questions. I also bought a few of the recommended reference books including Scientific style and format: the CSE manual for authors, editors and publishers. I’ve found Scientific style and format to be a terrific addition to my library of reference books because it fills in a lot of the gaps left by the Australian Government’s Style manual.

With the exam date fast approaching, I spent a lot of my spare time reading Scientific style and format and also paying very close attention to any editing projects I was working on. BELS says that daily work as an editor is your best preparation, and I found myself making up multiple-choice questions out of my edits! I also paid a lot of attention to the BELS study guide ‘list of topics tested’ and studied some of the areas I thought I needed to revise.

I was pretty nervous on the flight to Brisbane and read from the 722-page Scientific style and format the whole way. Luckily, a friend was also taking the exam so we were able to have a chat when we arrived at the hotel to calm each other’s nerves.

The next morning, just before 9:30, there were about 10 editors milling around the hotel lobby, waiting to be let into the exam room. Three hours later, it was all over bar the waiting. It took about six weeks before a certificate showed up in the post, along with a BELS lapel pin, which I intend to wear to the next Editors Victoria dinner in celebration.

To answer the questions I know you are wanting to ask: yes, the exam is difficult but not impossible; yes, I do feel that my years of working as an editor were better preparation than any studying I could do; and yes, definitely go for it if you have been working as a scientific editor. BELS accreditation isn’t a necessity as a scientific editor, but like ‘bells and whistles’, it is a prestigious qualification to have that sets you apart from the crowd.

This last exam brings the number of Australian editors with BELS accreditation to 25.

Joely Taylor