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

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