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With BELS On (or, How I Earned My Editor of Life Sciences Certification)

With BELS On (or, How I Earned My Editor of Life Sciences Certification)

Guest post by Sarah Felde, Special Projects Manager for WilliamsTown Communications

headshot_oldDoes the acronym BELS ring a bell? If you’re a writer, editor, or publisher of biology-related content, it might. Founded in 1991, the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences—or BELS—is a professional organization that awards credentials to manuscript editors with expertise in the life sciences.

If you’re not familiar with BELS, don’t worry! I first heard of BELS only a few years ago—and when I did, I was immediately interested in the organization’s Editor in the Life Sciences (ELS) certification. Why? For one, I knew that by passing the ELS certification exam, I’d have a quick and objective way of showing clients I was a skilled editor who specialized in life science content. But just as importantly, I’d be able to prove this to myself!

A quick check on the BELS website revealed I met the two main eligibility requirements for taking the exam: I held a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, and I had at least two years’ experience as a manuscript editor in the life sciences. In fact, I’d been working with biology content for over a decade—so passing the certification exam would be a cinch, right? All I needed was a chance to take the test.

That chance came this summer, when BELS offered the exam in conjunction with the 2014 American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) Indiana Chapter Conference. When I opened the test booklet, I found lots of things I expected—namely, questions on topics as diverse as:


  • General rules of grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and usage
  • Proper execution of the scientific method
  • Creation and interpretation of tables and illustrations
  • Mathematics and units of measurement
  • Documentation of references
  • Ethics of publishing and scientific research

What I didn’t expect was how difficult the test would be. For a majority of the questions, there was no one answer option that was obviously right. Narrowing down which of the plausible answers was “most correct” took a great deal of time—so much, in fact, that I was unable to complete the entire test (for the first time in my life, might I add!)

As I left the testing room, I was convinced I’d failed. So, imagine my surprise when a few weeks later, a thick envelope arrived from BELS, telling me I had passed! I could now join the roughly 1,100 editors across the globe who write the letters “ELS” after their name.

Interestingly enough, of that select group of editors, three of us—Linda Blevins, Karen Kassel, and I—are staff members at WilliamsTown Communications. I’d wager that few, if any, organizations of our size have this many BELS-certified editors on staff. It’s just another indicator of the unique advantage WilliamsTown brings to projects involving healthcare and the life sciences.

To learn more about the ELS certification, visit the BELS website. To learn more about WilliamsTown Communications and the value we add to projects of all types, click here.

  1. Pretty! This has been a really wonderful article.

    Thanks for providing this info.

  2. I failed this test — 3 times! — despite being an excellent editor who has been steadily employed in the medical communications business for more than 20 years. HOW IN THE WORLD DOES ONE PASS THIS DAMNED THING??

    • Hi Rene,
      The test is difficult and everyone I know who has taken it has felt like they failed once it ended. If you let us know your email, we’ll work on sending you a list of tips for the exam.

    • Similar to what the author wrote, narrowing down the possible right answers was key for me. I could usually knock out at least 2 answers, leaving me with only 2. I also relied heavily on the AMA style guide quizzes available for free on their website. There are answer keys with specific references to the style guide so you can look them up. I had to go through these quizzes a dozen times in some cases, but they were a lifesaver.

      Good luck!

  3. Would this be the same as the study booklet BELS gives out? If so, there’s no point, I already have that. But if you have something different, yes I’d love to see it. Email is My new employer wants me to take this yet again; I don’t dare tell them I’ve already taken it 3 times.

  4. Still looking forward to any information you may have that would help me. Thanks.

    • Hi Rene,
      I sent you a detailed email about a week or two ago. It may have gone to your spam folder. Please add to your accepted addresses and I’ll try to send again. Let me know when you have done so. Thanks!– Laura

      • I’ll look. Thanks so much!

        • Nothing there in the junk folder. I’ll add your address to the accepted list. Please re-send. Thanks so much!

  5. I would love a copy of your tips as well. I haven’t tried this test yet and am evaluating whether I have enough of a background to pass it. I have tons of excellent, rigorous technical editing experience but not specifically in life sciences, and my degree is not in life sciences. However it’s long been an area of interest to me so I know I can learn what I need to know, if I don’t have it down already. Thanks very much!!

  6. I would love some tips as well, Laura! Thanks so much for the informative article. My e-mail is

    I was also wondering what type of editing experience you had in the biology field before you applied for accreditation. I am a graduate student in Behavioral Neuroscience and have reviewed a few manuscripts, but I’m not sure if that counts as “experience”….

    Thanks for your help!

    • I apologize for the delay, I did not see this comment earlier. I sent it off this morning, let me know if you do not receive it. All of my editors had several years experience working on science textbooks. However, I think your experience would count. The BELS exam will be given in Indianapolis in June if you are interested. I’ll post the dates on the site shortly. Thanks!

  7. Hi, Could you send a copy to me as well? I’m in the same boat as Terri!

  8. Hi Laura,
    I’d love to see your tips as well. I’m considering taking the test in Houston or Denver next year. Thanks! – Lori

  9. Hi Laura,

    I envy you for getting through at the first attempt! I’m thinking of giving the exam next year. I’d love to know your tips (besides AMA, which I’m already reading more of). Also, if you tell me exactly how they’d check tables and “execution of scientific method” as their sample 21 questions deal mainly with grammar.

    My email is

    Thank you for the help!


  10. Hi Laura,

    Thank you for this info, and congratulations on getting through BELS in one attempt. I too would like to get your tips.

    Thank you! – Sudeep

  11. Hi Laura,
    Thanks so much for the information.
    I too would like to get your tips.
    My e-mail is
    Thanks for your help.

  12. Hi Laura,

    Thank you so much for this information. I plan on taking the exam sometime in the summer this year, and I was hoping that you could send me some tips for passing the test. Are there any study guides, besides the one of the website, that might be more helpful?

    Thank you,

  13. Hi, Thank you for the great article! I am planning to take the exam this year and would love to have a copy of your tips. Please email me at Thanks so much!

  14. Hi Laura,

    You might have got sick of sending the mails, but even I would like to receive those tips. I am eagerly studying to clear the ELS exam.

    Thank you.

  15. Hi there,

    I am preparing for the BELS exam and would love a copy of your tips for taking the exam, if they are still available!

    Thank you!!

  16. I would also love your tips!

  17. Hi Laura,I would love to find your tips as well. I will take the bels test in Seoul this year. Thanks!

  18. I can see why you published an updated post! Thanks again for sharing your tips. I’m hoping I get that nice, big envelope this year.