“The Times in Plain English” Serves as a Reminder of the Importance of Evaluating Online Resources

(Updated Below)

For weeks now I’ve been receiving regular, unsolicited e-mails about a new online publication, The Times in Plain English, which is said to contain “content from The New York Times and other newspapers for literacy students, English language learners, immigrants and basic readers.” Yesterday I saw that The Times in Plain English was recommended by a colleague at an adult literacy library resource center, so last night I thought I better take a look.

The Times in Plain English claims that they are “presenting articles from The New York Times and other newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal in an easier to read format.” To me, this implies that they are essentially publishing the same content contained in the original articles they are picking up from those sources. But at least some of The Times in Plain English articles bear little resemblance to the articles they claim to just be simplifying, even to the point of contradicting points made in the original piece.

For example, take a look at this recent Times in Plain English story—particularly the headline and lede:

Screen Shot from "The Times in Plain English"

The Times in Plain English article concludes with this sentence: “Researchers say married parents are the best way to prevent poverty.”

Now go take a look at the original New York Times “Economix” column (titled “Economic Inequality and the Changing Family“) from Jason DeParle. Remember, The Times in Plain English editors claim they are just making his story “easier to read.”

Notice that at no point in his piece does DeParle make the claim that marriage “protects you from poverty.” In fact, he writes that “no one has suggested that single parenthood is the sole or even main force driving the increases in inequality, just an important one that is sometimes overlooked.” While the data shows a larger number of children of single parents are more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to attend college, etc., DeParle writes that this alone “does not prove that single parenthood caused those outcomes.” (my emphasis)

And later in the column, DeParle cites a researcher who, after noting the differences between economic outcomes of children of single parents vs. married parents, “warned that [his] analysis could mask other factors that are more important than family structure per se — like underlying differences in race or education. (again, my emphasis)

In other words, nowhere does DeParle suggest that it is it is an agreed-upon fact that “married parents are the best way to prevent poverty.” You might believe that this is the case—and the editors of The Times in Plain English may also believe that is the case—but that is not what DeParle wrote. Their story is not a simplified version of DeParle’s piece but a completely different article that arrives at conclusions that neither DeParle nor the researchers he cited actually made. (In addition, although it’s not a substantive change, the photo of the happy wedding accompanying the Times in Plain English story appears nowhere in DeParle’s original column.)

There is very little information provided about the publisher of The Times in Plain English and none about the people who write the articles (there are no bylines), although in the FAQ they acknowledge that the writers have no special expertise in plain language writing. The Times in Plain English has no official relationship to The New York Times, although it has appropriated the New York Times’ masthead font for part of their own masthead, which may suggest to some that there is one.

Times in Plain English Masthead

New York Times Masthead

While the people behind The Times in Plain English may have the best of intentions, the issues discussed above (including the unsolicited spam) are red flags. It reminds me that teachers and others have to evaluate online resources carefully, and we can’t just give something a pass just because it’s free or delivered by a well-meaning individual. There are many guides to evaluating Web sites that have been published by schools and libraries over the years which may be helpful in this regard. Here is one, for example, published by the University of Maryland library system.

UPDATE 8/16/12: Make sure to read Arthur Schiff’s response in the comment section below.

UPDATE 8/17/12: I just wanted to make a few points about Mr. Schiff’s comments. I appreciate his willingness to respond here.

He writes that their intent with The Times in Plain English is to write stories “from a fresh perspective.” More importantly, he clarifies that he considers the original news sites “the source of our information, but not as the final word on the content.” (my emphasis)

There is nothing wrong with writing original content based on work reported by others. That’s pretty much all I ever do here, for example, and many blogs and many news sources do the same. However, I don’t think The Times in Plan English makes it sufficiently clear that they are writing wholly original content. As I argued above, I think the site and their marketing material strongly suggest that they are adapting articles published by those newspapers, not using their reporting as sources for their own take on the news. Every e-mail I receive advertising The Times in Plan English starts off by describing their publication as follows:

Content from The New York Times and other newspapers for literacy students, English language learners, immigrants and basic readers. (my emphasis)

And from the “About Us” page on their Web site:

Among the publications our stories come from:

The Los Angeles Times          The Miami Herald
The New York Times             The Arizona Republic
The Wall Street Journal
The Washington Post

(my emphasis)

In my opinion, the use of  “from” and “come from” strongly suggest that the material in The Times in Plain English is directly adapted from those sources, not wholly original content based on multiple sources.

Mr. Schiff says that his writers typically “read two or three articles about a topic using one as the source and hyperlinking to another in the text,” and that “[t]he story you use as an example came from two articles in The NY Times and one from the LA Times.” But there was no indication in the piece that the writer was relying on multiple sources—just a link to DeParle’s column. There was no link, or mention, of the earlier New York Times story that Mr. Schiff cites to bolster the accuracy of The Times in Plain English story. No one looking at The Times in Plain English story would have any reason to think that other sources had been referenced.

Mr. Schiff acknowledges that “[n]o one doubts there are other factors in inequality,” but you would not know that from reading The Times in Plain English story, which stated a conclusion in the lede that was actually contradicted by the one source that they did cite. In fact, the Plain English story seems to miss the point of DeParle’s column—the one that is cited—which was to dig deeper into the research on the relationship between family structure than in that earlier story had done. As I wrote in the original piece, it is perfectly fine to come to a different conclusion than DeParle or the researchers he quotes, but in that case it’s even more important to be clear that the Plain English story is not a direct adaptation of DeParle’s column.

Mr. Schiff did not address some of the other points I made in my original post so I won’t repeat them. But I do want to emphasize again that the primary purpose of the post was not to criticize Mr. Schiff’s efforts, but to model some of the things everyone needs to do when critically evaluating a resource. I did make a point to say that I wasn’t questioning  the intentions of the publisher in my post, and now that I know a little more about the way in which articles are put together, I appreciate the effort that goes into it, especially considering that it’s all done for free. My point is not to get everyone to agree with all of my critiques, but to demonstrate the importance of evaluating resources carefully.