An American Editor

July 9, 2014

The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics

In a recent essay, “The Practical Editor: What Does Professional Certification Look Like?,” Erin Brenner discussed certification of American editors. The essay also provoked a number of comments. Yet, I found the essay lacking in one respect: There was no mention of requiring taking a course in ethics and passing an ethics exam as part of the certification process.

To my way of thinking, certification implies that the person certified is not only skill competent but also not ethically challenged. Yet the certification programs pay little to no attention to ethics issues. Many certificated professions require the taking and passing of ethics courses and exams. I remember having to take such a course in law school and then having to pass a special ethics exam administered by the State of California in the early 1970s. If I failed the ethics exam, I could not be admitted to the practice of law even if I earned a perfect score on the bar exam itself.

Over the years and on many different editor forums there have been discussions about ethics. Colleagues would ask a question, seeking advice from others about how to handle a particular situation. We’ve asked and discussed questions of ethics many times on An American Editor in essays like “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”, “The Ethics of Editing“, “The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing“, “Ethics in a World of Cheap“, “The Business of Editing: Expectations“, and “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line”, to cite a few examples.

Ethics are always on an editor’s mind, as ethics should be. But we lack a uniform standard of ethics that can act as a guide to our decision making and against which we can be judged.

Even though we constantly ask questions about ethics (“What would you do in these circumstances?”), there seems to be a dearth of focus on ethics in conferences or in certification courses. Conferences and courses all focus on the mechanics of editing — the things that we can do to improve our earnings or to improve our editing skills and make us more desirable to clients and prospective clients. Consider, for example, the certification program offered by the University of Chicago Graham School. Not one of the required classes focuses on ethics. The same is true at the University of Washington, the MediaBistro Online Editing Course, and the University of California at San Diego Copyediting Program, to name a few of the available certification programs. Even the Editor’s Association of Canada offers tests of your editing skills, but not of your editorial and business ethics.

From this (admittedly) incomplete survey of certification courses, one could surmise that editorial and business ethics are not particularly important in the editing profession. I have always thought that ethics was important in all business dealings. The purpose of certification is to broadcast to clients and prospective clients that we are qualified to perform the services we offer. It is a way to distinguish professional from nonprofessional editors.

Similarly, meeting ethical standards is a way to separate professional from nonprofessional editors. Of course, simply passing an ethics exam is insufficient. The certifying agencies need to also be enforcers of the ethics standards. Thus our problem.

First, we have no single agency that sets standards that editors must meet to gain certification. The agency that sets the standards does not need to provide the courses to educate editors to those standards; other institutions can do that, just as is done with lawyers, doctors, and accountants — the key is to have a standards-creating organization whose standards form the educational core around which other organizations form their programs.

Second, we have no standard set of ethics. Each editor establishes and interprets his or her own ethical standards. As a profession we need an ethics-setting agency that also has the authority to resolve ethical questions and disputes, especially disputes between clients and editors.

Third, and perhaps in today’s environment most important, those programs that offer certificates should create an ethics course and require that students take the course and pass an ethics exam as a condition of certification. This would (a) make the courses more valuable, (b) would put ethics on par with editing skills, and (c) would help reassure clients and prospective clients.

Fourth, I would like to see conferences include seminars on editorial business ethics. We need to begin exposing editors to the types of situations that can hurt an editor–client relationship because of misunderstanding and teach editors how to avoid those situations and how to resolve ethical conflicts that might arise.

Regardless of what path, in terms of nationwide standards setting, is taken, I believe that certification programs need to take the lead and incorporate an ethics component into the requirements. This would be good for the editor, for the certification program, and for clients. It is not enough that an editor be master of editing skills; an editor who is ethically challenged and who angers a client as a result threatens the livelihood of all editors.

We need to remember all those author comments on forums like LinkedIn expressing the author’s unsatisfactory experiences with editors and who tell everyone who will listen that it is better to self-edit or have trustworthy friends do the editing. If you look at their complaints carefully, many of them are ethical complaints.

We also need to remember that ethics is part and parcel of doing business, especially a service business such as editing. The more we discuss and educate ourselves about ethics issues, the better our business will be.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. I agree on all points.

    The one that most concerns me is: “We need to remember all those author comments on forums like LinkedIn expressing the author’s unsatisfactory experiences with editors and who tell everyone who will listen that it is better to self-edit or have trustworthy friends do the editing. If you look at their complaints carefully, many of them are ethical complaints.”

    In an effort to counter this, I recently wrote an article aimed at both editors and authors addressing how to work together successfully, called “Author-Editor Triads.” It is a free download on my website at:


    Comment by Carolyn — July 9, 2014 @ 5:47 am | Reply

  2. Good ask, Richard. Would you be interested in proposing a conference session for “Conference 2015—Editing Goes Global”?

    BTW, EAC has looked into an editing ethics policy:

    Ken Weinberg
    Dir. Training and Development
    Editiors’ Association of Canada


    Comment by Ken Weinberg — July 9, 2014 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  3. Great idea. Many times editors struggle with ethics on either side — their own and their clients’. Some questions and issues I’ve seen on discussion boards:

    Do you tell clients if you have an illness or family emergency?

    Do you tell clients if you hire another freelancer to work on a job you’re doing?

    If billing by the hour, do you count time for breaks, as you would if employed?

    If a job is going sour, do you (a) cut corners, (b) tell the client and try to renegotiate time and/or money, (c) just grind through it even though you’re making no money and the rent/mortgage/bills are due, (d) something else?

    If a manuscript’s subject matter turns out to be something you object to, should you not do it? Stop in the middle if it wasn’t known beforehand? Do it anyway, because it doesn’t matter what your opinions are?

    Is it ever OK to pad your hours (if billing hourly)? What is the client tells you that although they accept with your flat-fee price, because of their company’s accounts payable policy, you still have to bill by the hour, with the knowledge that the number of hours on your invoice is not the actual number of hours, but the number that will make the final amount equal your flat fee? What if the client told you this after you started the job?

    From the client side: Scope creep is very common, and often it seems that the client is well aware that they are asking for more work for the same or only a very small increase (not commensurate with the extra work). How does the editor deal with this? What about slow or nonpayment? Granted, professional ethics won’t make clients change their behavior, but could be part of the ethics education: how to deal with others’ unethical behavior.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — July 9, 2014 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

  4. The American Medical Writers Association has a code of ethics that members must adhere to and requires an ethics course as part of its certificate program.


    Comment by Daniel — July 9, 2014 @ 3:42 pm | Reply

    • Daniel, that’s really interesting. The COE seems reasonable to me and something other groups could build on. How does AMWA ensure compliance with the COE? Does it accept complaints from clients/employers? In other words, how does it police the COE?


      Comment by erinbrenner — July 11, 2014 @ 11:18 am | Reply

      • Other than simply requiring members to sign the code, there’s a grievance review process that involves submitting a form to AMWA’s executive director or president. “Grievances may be brought by a petitioner to challenge or seek redress of possible wrong done by an AMWA policy, process, or procedure. Grievances also may be brought against an individual or group concerning professional misconduct in an area of medical communication.” There are sequential reviews by committees until a decision is made. Their policy doesn’t lay out possible actions, though it does mention expulsion.

        Click to access AMWAGrievanceProcess.pdf


        Comment by Daniel — July 11, 2014 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

        • Interesting. Do you know if anyone has ever brought a grievance? I’m just wondering how the system worked in reality, if so. Do you think expulsion from the organization has merit? Again, I not trying to challenge anything; I’m wondering how it works.


          Comment by erinbrenner — July 11, 2014 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

          • I’m sorry I don’t know. The policy is to keep it all confidential.


            Comment by Daniel — July 11, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

          • No worries, Daniel. Thanks for responding!


            Comment by erinbrenner — July 14, 2014 @ 7:17 am

  5. Although the certification we’ve been talking about doesn’t demand any set courses be taken, I agree that adding a section on ethics to an editor certification test would be helpful. Like editing itself, ethics can be subjective or at least variable depending on circumstances, but setting some editorial ethics and asking editors to not only know them but follow them (and, hence, be disciplined for not following them) can improve our work and make clients more confident in hiring certified editors.


    Comment by erinbrenner — July 9, 2014 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

  6. […] In a follow-up to my article on the possible need for editor certification, Rich Adin wrote about the need for an ethics portion of a certification program. […]


    Pingback by The Practical Editor: 11 Standards for Ethical Editors | An American Editor — July 21, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  7. […] a comment to an earlier essay on ethics, The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics, Teresa Barensfeld asked several questions. With her permission, I plan to give my view on some of […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Do You Tell? Ethical Considerations & Subcontracting | An American Editor — July 28, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  8. I totally agree. I’ve looked at the possibility of certification for the Australian version only briefly so I don’t know if ethics is part of our version or not, but it’s a 3 hour exam so you’d hope that ethics might be part of that. Your post doesn’t give me much hope of it though. They’re probably the same. But ethical behaviour is very important. It doesn’t take much listening to authors to realize that there are unethical editors out there, and apparently some who think that ‘editing’ a book means giving it a copy edit. It’s sad to read books where the author says the book has been ‘professionally’ edited meaning that they paid for it, and though there are no typos and the grammar is all good, the editor hasn’t mentioned to them that their characters are shallow, the plot weak, the prose dull and so on. Not looking at the big picture does a great disservice to ones clients.


    Comment by Tahlia Newland — December 31, 2014 @ 6:00 pm | Reply

  9. […] comments to the posts. Teresa Barensfeld asks some great questions in the comments section of “The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics,” […]


    Pingback by Do Editors Need a Code of Ethics? - Right Touch Editing — March 23, 2023 @ 6:25 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: