On The Memorability Debate

I’m writing a series of posts in response to a still-unfolding debate and conversation within the visualization community that was catalyzed by two newsletter/blog posts from Stephen Few. He wrote two strongly negative critiques of two papers on memorability from a group of researchers at Harvard and MIT; Michelle Borkin was first author on both of these papers. He also critiqued the InfoVis conference itself, where these papers were published.

The first paper was published at InfoVis13: What Makes a Visualization Memorable? by Borkin, Vo, Bylinskii, Isola, Sunkavalli, Oliva, and Pfister. In my posts, I’ll call it [Mem13] for short. The second was published at InfoVis15: Beyond Memorability: Visualization Recognition and Recall by Borkin, Bylinskii, Kim, Bainbridge, Yeh, Borkin, Pfister, and Oliva. I’ll call it [Mem15]. Few’s critique of Mem13 is Chart Junk: A Magnet for Misguided Research, I’ll call it [Few13]. His critique of Mem15 was called Information Visualization Research as Pseudo-Science, I’ll call it [Few15]. The discussion about that article is on a separate set of pages.

I note two roles of my own, for full disclosure and context.

I was Michelle Borkin’s postdoc supervisor from mid-summer 2014 through mid-summer 2015. I was not personally involved with any of the memorability research, which was done while she was a PhD student at Harvard with Hanspeter Pfister.

I’ve been heavily involved with InfoVis for quite a while now. I’ve attended every single one since it started in 1995, and first published there in 1996. My first organizational role was being webmaster in 1999, I started the posters program in 2001, I was papers chair in 2003 and 2004, and I’ve been a member of the steering committee since 2011.

All of which is to say yes, I do have some skin in the game on both of these fronts.

My response covers enough ground that I’ve split it across multiple posts. I’ll get the ball rolling with a first set of posts that are ready now, even as I continue working on more that dive in further into the scientific content of the papers. I’ll update this list as I go.

So far, I’ve written:



  1. Tamara,

    I’ve incorporated the four blog posts that you wrote in response to my article in the discussion forum of my website where the discussion began. I have responded to your comments there.



  2. […] disadvantaged (students, minorities, women). If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to read Tamara Munzner’s series on a major brouhaha in the Vis community triggered by a public review (posted by a […]


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