Nvivo for a literature review: How and why

Recently, I decided to use Nvivo for my literature review. Firstly, Nvivo doesn’t take out all of the leg work of doing a literature review, for me it is an organisational tool. Secondly, I wish I had started this sooner!

The Why

I was reading about data analysis for my confirmation document and every book suggested familiarising yourself with the program you would use. At the time, I had no experience with Nvivo, I thought how am I going to get practise with no data? Some how along the way, I discovered that some people use it for their literature review. I decided this would be a fantastic, low pressure, method for familarising myself with the program. This actually had the unintended result of allowing myself to confidently say ‘Yes! I can do that!’ when offered Research Assistant work that would involve using Nvivo.

The next reason I decided to use Nvivo was I had no method for organising my quotes that I liked, beyond a spreadsheet and a word document. I personally didn’t like this method, as I felt I couldn’t search and categorise things the way I wanted. Nvivo allows me to categorise quotes under multiple ‘nodes’.

My research focuses on tourism and I wanted a method for sorting my articles (quickly) into: tourist, organisations, volunteers, and host communities. I also wanted a way of looking at how the methods intersected, along with the theoretical frameworks. I know this could probably be done in excel, but I couldn’t quickly access my quotes while searching for the above criteria (well, at least with my limited knowledge of excel).

The How

The next section will require some knowledge of Nvivo and will contain screenshots of Nvivo 11 for Mac. Although they have similar features, I know the Windows version might look different and has extra features. Throughout the post below I have tried to provide the alternate names for the Nvivo 12 (Windows).

Importing references

Firstly, I import my articles under the ‘internals’ sources and into a folder called ‘articles’. I name each one with the authors name and year. In Nvivo 12 (Windows) I think the ‘internals’ folder is simply called ‘Files’.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.12.02 pm

This is a quick shot of what it looks like. If you already have a significant EndNote library you can import this, which is what I originally did. I code all of my articles using nodes kept in my ‘literature review’ folder. This will allow me to keep these nodes seperate from my data collection later.

At first, I was unsure of how to keep this current. My technique is to enter an article into EndNote, then manually import it into Nvivo. I then code it as I read. I think this is the most efficient method.

Assigning classifications to the references

As mentioned above, I originally wanted quick access to both sorting and finding quotes. To do this I use the ‘source’ classification available in Nvivo. This is called a ‘file classification’ in the Nvivo 12 for Windows.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.16.37 pm

As you can see, my source classification has a title: ‘Reference’ and different attributes listed below. These will import from Endnote (some of them). The most important reason for doing this is it allows me to do a ‘Matrix Coding Inquiry’ which I will now show you an example of output:

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.20.15 pm.png

In the left column you can see some nodes I chose to display for this example. The row across the top shows the ‘attributes’. The intersections of these show the number of times these have been coded together. If we look at the yellow box, we can see I have coded ‘Images of Africa’ three times in a reference that has the attribute ‘volunteer tourist’. This is useful to me if I want to write about literature on volunteer tourists discuss their host communities. I can double click on this and view the three times I have coded this and it looks like:

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.22.28 pm.png

This of course takes a fair amount of organisation, but it helps me to easily find intersections of different categories. You can also look at the intersection of two nodes in the same way.

If you don’t need to find specific intersections you can also view individual nodes:

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 1.25.40 pm.png

I wrote this post because I struggled to find the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of using Nvivo for a literature review. I would strongly recommend it, as it is a great tool for this purpose. I’m not an expert at Nvivo yet, but I really enjoy using it.

If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below!

An update 3rd April 2020:

Nvivo 12 (for Mac) looks much more like Nvivo for Windows, and very different to some of the screenshots in this post. Please keep this in mind.

I have since made a new post with an update on my thoughts.

I have also made a YouTube video which may be of interest to you:

27 thoughts on “Nvivo for a literature review: How and why

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  4. Hi Kate
    You have encouraged me to explore using NVivo for systematic literature review.
    Have you checked out these articles:
    Wolfswinkel, J. F., Furtmueller, E., & Wilderom, C. P. M. (2013). Using grounded theory as a method for rigorously reviewing literature. European Journal of Information Systems, 22(1), 45–55. https://doi.org/10.1057/ejis.2011.51
    Using NVivo with the method:
    Bandara, W., Furtmueller, E., Gorbacheva, E., Miskon, S., & Beekhuyzen, J. (2015). Achieving Rigor in Literature Reviews: Insights from Qualitative Data Analysis and Tool-Su. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 37, 154–204. https://doi.org/10.17705/1CAIS.03708

    1. Hi, great find! I love the Bandara article, and I don’t think I read it when I was initially looking around! It has some great examples for what to do, how to use Nvivo, love it.

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  7. Ollie

    Hi Kat,
    love your video. I am a masters student and wanted to get into NVIVO early. I had a question. You highlighted that you import your endnote references separately from the PDF articles. I wasn’t sure why, Also, while I understand how to separately import the PDF, I wasn’t sure how you connect the PDF to the actual reference.



    1. Hi,

      Importing from endnote in the beginning is just a really quick way to import all of your PDFs using a consistent naming technique. After this I simply import PDFs as I read so I can keep track of what I hve read. Nothing goes in nvivo without being read. Does this clear it up? So the references in endnote and nvivo aren’t really connected, it’s just a method to bulk import


  8. Mandy Rapson

    Is it possible to change the name/label of my literature PDF’s to author and year AFTER having imported them from Mendeley? When I did the import it was before I learnt how to use Nvivo, now I want to have the names of the PDF’s as author and year but don’t know how to change it without doing each one individually.

    1. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is another way. My only suggestion is re-name them one by one. Or, if you haven’t done any substantial coding you could re-import them with the names as author-year?

      If you haven’t coded many of them, perhaps it could be a way of sorting your coded/uncoded and read/unread ie, if it hasn’t had a name change you haven’t coded it yet?

      I am really sorry I can’t be of more help.

      1. Mandy Rapson

        Thanks, I ended up just renaming those that I had coded, and reimporting those that I hadn’t. It wasn’t too tedious. The most tedious part was the 90 mins I spent trying to find a ‘quick’ solution!

  9. Susanne

    Hi Kat, thanks for this post – just trying to get familiar with Nvivo and still not sure how to use some of the features. If you work on different projects (let’s say your thesis, and then an article, related or unrelated to your thesis), would you keep all your literature in one Nvivo file, and maybe just do group different literature into a sort of set (is this possible), or would you start an entirely new Nvivo file? I feel that some articles are relevant for both my projects, and I’m not sure how to keep track of updates on a specific article (coding, quotes, notes etc.) in one project, and for those to be reflected in the other project. I figure I’d be able to export, but sometimes I wouldn’t even realise until later (‘what was that article I read and coded in the other project with that great quote on such and such topic…? It would be perfect for…”. 🙂
    Thanks again for a great post!

    1. Hi! The way I would tackle this is only start a new Nvivo file if it is a different topic (ie something very different to your PhD). In terms of keeping them in the same project, you could also start a new top level node and code all of your literature for the article under that node. There is also the option to make folders for your files, so you could have one folder for PhD pdfs, and another for the article PDFS. But it sounds to me, if you were wanting an article for both projects, there is enough cross over to have it all in the one NVIVO file.

      1. Susanne

        Thanks so much Kat, so great to hear your opinion and insights – feel very lost in Nvivo but I also think it might be so useful once I can make the basics work for me 🙂 I will try that option – and yes, my topics are quite close to each other so the literature would be interesting for both…
        What’s your experience with Nvivo and the amount of PDFs you can upload in one Nvivo file? My first month on Nvivo it crashed – so my first impression is that it’s a bit unstable and that it can easily be overloaded. What’s your experience? I’m also thinking if I do use the same Nvivo file for several of my (overlapping) projects – I don’t want that to result in a future loss of data! 🙂

      2. Hi,
        I currently have over 800 PDFs and haven’t had any issues. I think it depends on the processing power of your computer. I also do not save my NVIVO on any cloud storage.

        What is your research In Zim about? Could be good to have a chat 🙂 Kate

  10. Lawrence

    This post is super-helpful! I’m about to embark on a PhD & just couldn’t think of a way to scale up how I took notes & quotes from my reading during my MA to PhD level. I used Word to note-take & copy out quotes during my MA & it was just about manageable. But it wouldn’t have been feasible for PhD-level note/quote-taking. So Nvivo will be ideal for me & how I work. And Scrivener is also way, way better than Word. I wish I knew about Scrivener during my MA. It would have saved endless scrolling. Thanks again for your posts.

  11. Lily

    Dear Kat, thanks for your great video on youtube. I came across it when looking for training materials on NViVo-Mac. I much appreciate if you could look into my case. After I imported (manually) the files into NVIVO in folders under Files, I right-clicked the file to get info. However, in the box next to Classification, it said No values. How could I add the attributes to the file? Thank you.

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