In 2011 Applied Geography published a paper which was designed as a kind of definitive statement from the Rescue Geography project which was my first large grant as PI. ‘The walking interview’ has gone on to be far and away my most cited paper. Indeed, it has just rolled over the 1000 citations mark according to Google Scholar.
Citations are not necessarily a mark of quality, though looking back on this paper I’m happy to say that it’s a pretty nice piece of writing. It’s based on work we had been doing with walking interviews in the Digbeth part of Birmingham. In 2007-8 when we undertook the project, Digbeth had been pencilled in for what was increasingly looking like a 1960s-style clear-and-rebuild redevelopment. Indeed, the northern part of the site adjacent to the city core had already been razed in anticipation of building a Richard Rogers-designed library. The library project never happened and the area was left vacant for many years – although now it’s the site for HS2’s new Curzon Street Station. Our research project was trying to capture something of the spirit of Digbeth before it was wiped off the map, although, as it turned out, the credit crunch came along and scuppered those comprehensive redevelopment plans.
We weren’t the first people to use walking interviews as a technique, far from it, but the novelty of our project was in using GPS to record where the interviews took place. By joining the GPS tracks to the interview transcripts, we were able to see whether where people walked had an impact on what they talked about. The 2011 Applied Geography paper demonstrated for the first time that not only did walking interviews generate more place-based commentary than a traditional sit-down interview, but that this material directly related to what people could see from where they were walking. In essence, it demonstrated that if you want rich information from participants about an environment then being in that environment can be very productive.
An obvious point, perhaps, but by clearly demonstrating this we set ourselves up for having a ‘must-cite’ paper for anyone writing about a project using walking as a research technique. Giving the paper a simple title ‘The walking interview’ made it really easy for people interested in the topic to find our paper. I must admit, since this point I’ve resisted the common social science tendency to create slightly opaque paper titles with quotes from participants or bad puns. The paper had a bit of a chequered history, starting life as a draft for the end of project report, which was then reworked and bounced by Transactions but with some very helpful referees’ comments. In summer 2010 I spent a few days in a cottage on the north coast of Scotland rewriting the paper in line with these comments and sent it off to Applied Geography. It’s the only paper I’ve ever had ‘desk accepted’ in that the editor didn’t bother sending it out for review but automatically agreed to publish it – subject to inserting a few more references to Applied Geography papers in order to help increase the journal’s Impact Factor.
Interestingly, the paper didn’t do so well on our internal University of Birmingham review process for those papers being submitted to REF 2014. Indeed, it was seen very much as the weakest paper that was submitted to REF against my name – although qualitative methodologies was subsequently flagged as a strength of Birmingham in the feedback from the REF panel. I subsequently took over our internal process for REF 2021 and have encouraged my colleagues to take a more positive attitude to methodology papers since they have generally been quite well regarded by REF panels. We’ll see if I’m proved right next year when the REF results come out.
The fact that this paper has been so ridiculously successful in terms of citation count makes me immensely proud but also prompts a little melancholy. My PhD supervisor Jeremy Whitehand passed away earlier this year – a very lovely man, kind, generous and an incredible scholar. Beyond his core research in urban morphology, he was interested in the mechanics of scholarship and a quite brilliant editor. In 1985 he published a paper in Transactions that undertook an analysis of citations within human geography, exploring how patterns of citation told a story about who was reading human geography publications and what ideas were being widely diffused within the academy. He used the word ‘centurions’ as a shorthand for highly cited human geographers – reflecting those who had had a total of more than 100 citations for their publications.
Of course, Jeremy didn’t have the benefit of the huge citation databases that we have now, with he and his wife Susan painstakingly manually calculating the kinds of things that we look up in an instant today. Of the most cited human geographers from 1971-75, Brian Berry came top with 890 citations; there were only 32 human geographers in this period that had more than 100 citations. The idea that today it isn’t particularly unusual for a single paper in human geography to crack 100 citations across four years (let alone 1000 over ten years) really gives a sense of how the academy changed during Jeremy’s long and productive life.
This is a slightly self-indulgent post and I promise that normal service will resume shortly with intermittent blogs about random tech things (I’ve just bought a VR headset with built-in eye tracking, so watch this space!). Nonetheless, I remain very pleased with the 2011 Applied Geography paper. It certainly got me thinking about the possibility of writing at least some papers that clearly demonstrate something of value and interest to the wider academic community and beyond. In this regard, I very much see the green prisons project with Dom Moran and the biosensing work with Tess Osborne as being spiritual successors to the walking paper from ten years ago. Though, of course, that’s not to say that I don’t still enjoy the occasional bit of cultural geography navel gazing…
Evans J and Jones P (2011) The walking interview: methodology, mobility and place. Applied Geography 31(2): 849-858.
Whitehand JWR (1985) Contributors to the recent development and influence of human geography: what citation analysis suggests. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 10(2): 222-234.
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer