Founding the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS): An Interview with the National Academies’ Norman Grossblatt

You sit at conferences, complaining about the declining quality in your chosen profession. After several years, someone says, “Why don’t we do something about it?” Norman Grossblatt, a senior editor with the National Academies, experienced that. He and about a dozen colleagues kept complaining, but then they did something. Twenty years later, that “something”, the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS), has examined and certified about 1,000 manuscript editors.

The impetus for the BELS examination began during the social gatherings at conferences and seminars when a loose-knit group of editors talked about their profession. Everyone, Grossblatt said, knew someone who wasn’t working up to (undefined) professional standards and was “making the rest of us look bad and cheating the people they were working for”. In the early 1980s, the group got its chance. At an annual meeting of the Council of Biology Editors (CBE, now the Council of Science Editors), the word was put out that various editingrelated subjects would be discussed at a 1-hour evening gathering of author’s editors in a room in the annual-meeting hotel. Certification of editors turned out to be by far the most popular subject. Those casual conversations led to the development of a task force under the aegis of the Author’s Editors Committee.

CBE funded the group’s exploration of methods of certifying editors, its travel to meetings, and its engagement of lawyers and a testing expert. “At the time, we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do with an examination—or whether we could even produce one”, Grossblatt said. By the 1990 annual meeting, however, the group had created an examination, had tested it on about 100 volunteer editors, and was ready to offer it to editors for certification. And then the CBE Board of Directors decided to discontinue its support of the project.

Ten of the 13 who had developed the certification program were present at that annual meeting and gathered around the pool in Orlando, Grossblatt said. “We decided that we would do it ourselves”. That meant rewriting the examination and testing it on themselves. Later, in a dayand-a-half meeting, seven members of the group went over the examination, which covered grammar, copyright, author rights, usage, logic, consistency, and much more. If they were not unanimous in supporting a question—the wording of the question, the optional answers, the explanation of the choice of correct answer and the rejection of incorrect answers, the relevance of the question, and so on—they discarded the question. In the end, 105 questions remained. (Today, the examination is continually reviewed and refreshed.)

To launch the BELS program, each of the 10 founders contributed $300, the amount that would eventually be charged to take both the basic certification examination and the examination for diplomate status.

The whole endeavor was a gamble— creating the test, forming the organization, and awarding certification and the right to use initials after one’s name. It involved a lot of guesswork. “To begin with, we had no idea how many people were in the manuscript-editing profession”, Grossblatt said.

The importance of the BELS certification “really came home to me when I was proctoring an examination in the early days of BELS”, Grossblatt said. “A couple came in—a young woman who was taking the test and her husband. He stopped at the door and kissed her and said, ‘Good luck’”. “Something clicked”, he continued; it suddenly became clear that what the group had created was important in people’s lives. “This was real.”

Today, the BELS program also engages in activities other than examining editors for certification. It offers two $500 grants per year for certified editors to attend relevant meetings, it holds a breakfast get-together during the American Medical Writers Association annual conference, and its annual meeting convenes during the CSE annual meeting.

This year, at its 20th-anniversary dinner meeting, BELS for the fifth time conferred “honored editor” status on a long-time editor for a life’s work in the field. John C Bailar III, MD, PhD, has worked in a number of editorial capacities, including being a former editor-in-chief of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, member of the editorial board of Cancer Research, and statistical consultant for the New England Journal of Medicine.

Grossblatt acknowledged that for some the credentials are all that editors seek. They passed a difficult examination and earned a credential, which is all they wanted. “I can’t argue with that”, he said.

TERESA M MELCHER is editor of SelfPublishing Press.