Whenever I tell people that I have used NVivo for a literature review, they always want to know more! Writing a literature review is so much more than simply reading and writing. In fact, there is even a blog dedicated to dealing with literature reviews for academics and PhD students. While there are tools such as Endnote and Zotero that help with citations, there are few tools to assist with the sorting, categorising and grouping of the literature, which are essential parts of the process of writing a literature review. This is where CAQDAS (Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software) can help, and the one I’ve used, and found particularly useful, is NVivo.
The main benefits I have found so far:
It helps you find patterns and put things into groups and categories
Grouping, categorising and finding patterns in literature are an important part of the literature review process. When I used NVivo, I could group and categorise different sections of my reading notes, as well as the text (and images) of PDFs. I also created themes within themes. For example, you can have a heading called “Epistemology” and, underneath that, create a heading (or a NODE as it is called in NVivo) labelled “definitions”, which means all your definitions of an “Epistemology” will be in the one place! The feature I was most impressed with was the ability to text-search PDFs (as well as my notes). This meant that I could run a text search and see which articles I had imported that mentioned that topic.
It lets you change categories easily as your research progresses
This is the other feature I really liked about using the program for a literature review. After I had created the themes and headings, and put content into them, I realised that I wanted to change the structure a little, and NVivo lets you do this really easily (I have used it for lots of research projects, too). I could change the names of the categories, delete them or simply move them around to where I thought they fit best. I wish the program was able to handle PDFs when I was doing my PhD. It would have saved so much time! As research progresses, particularly qualitative research, so do some of the ideas and themes. NVivo is flexible enough to accommodate this.
The information will ALWAYS be linked to the source it came from
There were so many times when I was doing my literature review where I found that different sections of an article related to different themes and topics, but I found it hard to keep the source, notes and themes in the same place. In NVivo, if you label things correctly (even just by the title of an article), regardless of where you choose to categorise (or recategorise) that information, NVivo links all the bits of the text to the original source. This means that you can shuffle things around as much as you like, and the reference information will never get lost!
You can see everything at once
When I was writing the literature review for my thesis, one of the things I really struggled with was switching back and forth between Endnote and Word to add my notes. There were just so many steps involved. I never really thought that there would be so much administration with writing a literature review. I found it much easier in Nvivo: everything was stored in one place, the PDFs as well as my notes, and I could clearly see and play with the structure of the categories without worrying about losing anything. What was even better was that the categories all had relevant content.
What it DOESN’T do:
You can’t use NVivo to cite-while-you write. You will still need some sort of citation program for that, like Endnote or Zotero (or do it manually, which is what I did for my thesis). You can also bring an Endnote library into NVivo, but I haven’t found that particularly useful.
After using NVivo for a literature review for the first time, I can’t imagine going back to the other way. The process of categorising in NVivo, which turned out to be really simple, saved me lots of time (and administration). Everything was there at the click of a button, and I could see how much information I had in different sections with a quick glance, so I knew immediately how many references I had for each of my themes.
What are your thoughts on the process of writing a literature review? Have you tried using special software to help, and if so, what was your experience?