It’s Time to Come Out from the Shadows

In the most recent edition of the Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter, I critiqued a research study that was done by Michelle Borkin and several others titled “Beyond Memorability: Visualization Recognition and Recall.” The purpose of the article was to expose systemic problems that exist in the field of information visualization research and to encourage efforts to address these problems. I took great pains to point out that Michelle and her work is but an example of a widespread problem in our field. I have nothing against Michelle personally. As I explained in the article, I selected her paper as the object of my critique because it has received a great deal of media attention and it illustrates many of the problems that are rife within the infovis research community.

Speaking up about serious problems in one’s field is not a popular thing to do. I am the bearer of news that is uncomfortable for everyone in the community. I know that this is especially true for Michelle, which gives me no pleasure. Unfortunately, there is no way that these problems can be addressed solely in the abstract. Real examples of ill-conceived and dysfunctional research must be identified and dissected to make these problems tangible. Everything that I wrote was true and, in my opinion, needed to be said. Nothing was said lightly.

I received an email from a respected friend and colleague in the field today who expressed his concern that I may have inadvertently crossed a line when I wrote the following [emphasis his]:

Borkin didn’t produce a flawed study because she lacks talent. As a doctoral student she did a study title “Evaluations of Artery Visualizations for Heart Disease Diagnosis” that was exceptionally worthwhile and well done. In that study, she showcased her strengths. I suspect that her studies of memorability were dysfunctional because she lacked the experience and training required to do this type of research. She is now an Assistance Professor at Northeastern University, teaching the next generation of students. I’m concerned that she will teach them to produce pseudo-science. This is a depressing cycle. Too many academics are supervising research studies that fall outside of their areas of expertise. Isn’t it time to break this cycle?

Here is an excerpt from my response to my friend:

I am quite sincere in my concern that we are training a new generation of poor infovis researchers…The fine work that people like you…and a few others are doing in the field is not turning the tide. Most people working in the field today are ill-equipped and that won’t change without addressing the systemic problem. I would like to see infovis research get on track in my lifetime. I’m doing what I can to turn the tide. I know that my efforts aren’t popular among many in the community. I’m convinced, however, that until others in the community begin to voice their concerns, the onus falls on me to do what I can in the only way I know how. For years I’ve been inviting people like you who are respected in the community and share my concerns to speak up. You have such a voice. Please raise it publicly to address these problems in your own way. 

You see the dilemma that I face. If you have advice to offer, I’ll welcome it. I invite this sincerely. I derive no pleasure from being the voice of a strident reformer. I couldn’t live with myself, however, if I stood by and did nothing. This is my work. It’s what I have to offer the world. I’m trying to do it well.

What I wrote in the newsletter article is but one of many examples of similar critiques that I’ve written over the years. If you’re familiar with my work, you know that I do more than criticize—I provide thoughtful analysis and suggest solutions. I have always invited the community to respond, but have rarely received a public response. What I have often heard is that my words sparked private discussions—usually angry. That isn’t helping.

Something needs to be done and it must be done in the daylight, not in the shadows. The focus must be on the problems that I’ve exposed and how we can address them. This is not about me. This is not about Michelle. This is about an important field of study that we all care about deeply. It is about future generations of infovis researchers who could be solving real problems in the world. We have a responsibility to fix the systemic problems in our field. I have worked tirelessly to address these problems and have always tried to do so with integrity. I have spoken publicly, setting myself up as the target of anger from people who should be doing something to address the problems. I’m trying to be a part of the solution. What are you doing? If you have anything useful to say, it’s time to say it. If my assessment of our situation is wrong, let me know. If my assessment is correct and you have solutions, let me know. Please, let me know and in so doing, help me open a door to greater contributions from our field.

Take care,


2 Comments on “It’s Time to Come Out from the Shadows”

By Stephen Few. December 9th, 2015 at 8:04 pm

I just now received an email from someone claiming to be Bill Cleveland, but have confirmed is not the well known author, who asked why I have not responded to comments in my discussion forum from Jeff Heer, Jean-Daniel Fekete, and Pierre Dragicevic regarding the newsletter article. The answer is that I didn’t know about these comments. I usually receive emails alerting me to new comments, but did not receive emails regarding these. It is too late to respond this evening, but I will definitely respond to these comments tomorrow. I apologize for the delay and appreciate the fact that these folks have posted comments.

By Stephen Few. December 10th, 2015 at 12:32 pm

I am now up to date in responding to all of the comments that have been posted on this topic in my discussion forum.

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