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NVivo logo References and literature review in NVivo 2

Author of this page: Graham R. Gibbs

Affiliation: University of Huddersfield

Date written: 14th Nov. 2005





There is one exception to the dictum that ‘all that matters is that you start writing…’ and that is references or citations. You could rush these and just put down rough notes of where your quotations come from and what literature you are citing. Then, however, you will have committed yourself to the painful experience, probably just when you think you have finished writing, of finding and checking all your references. Best avoid this and get them right from the start. Many people now use dedicated bibliographic software like EndNote or ProCite to keep an accurate database of their references. The most recent versions of these programs enable you to download references directly from online sources. Such sources are usually more accurate than hand-written notes (though not 100% reliable in my experience). The software will also enable you to keep notes on each source and help you format the citations and bibliography in your final document. Your citations need to be accurate and any direct quotations should include page number references. As Wolcott puts it: “Most readers will not consult your sources; they count on you to inform them. This is one reason for being accurate and complete. Conversely, some readers will consult your citations; that is another reason.” (Wolcott 1990: 43)

You don’t need to use a dedicated bibliographic database. A word-processed file of the complete references can act as a good database, though you will need to format your citations and bibliography by hand. However, an even neater approach is to use NVivo to keep the database of references. Although NVivo cannot format your bibliography for you, you do gain all the benefits of NVivo’s sophisticated search tools and of course, if you keep notes on the references, these can be integrated with all the other documents, like memos, that you are writing as part of your analysis. In fact you can treat the process of examining and reviewing the literature as part of your qualitative project and treat your notes on the literature just like you would treat field notes and theoretical memos in NVivo. Such an approach has been described by di Gregorio (2000). She suggests several ways in which the software can be used. For example you can use proxy documents for taking notes on books and papers to create a literature review journal. Your own analytic thoughts on the literature can be entered in memos linked to the relevant proxy document.

To keep notes on the literature in NVivo,

  • Create a proxy document for each book.
  • To do this, from the project pad make a project document.
  • In the New project document dialog, select the Make a Proxy Document for non file data button. Click on Next>.

Fill in the fields on the next dialog. See Figure 1. Click on Next>.

New proxy document description dialog in NVivo

Figure 1 .  The new proxy document description dialog.

In the next dialog (Figure 2), select Use numbered paragraph headers. If it is a book or journal article you are working on then it probably makes sense to use Pages for each paragraph. In a report with numbered sections you might prefer to use Section. There are other options in the pull down menu. Fill in the number of the first page (or section etc.) and the last page. Click on Finish.

Proxy document design dialog in NVivo

Figure 2 .The Proxy document design dialog.

A new document is created in your project with the name you selected followed by ‘(proxy)’. Browse this document and you will see it consists solely of a list of page numbers (or section numbers). See Figure 3.


Figure 3 . The contents of the new proxy document.

The idea is that you can now enter your notes, summarizing the original text, page by page. In other words, notes for page 4 will follow the title ‘Page 4’ and so on. In addition it will make sense to enter the details of the text along with any other information you have, such as an abstract (that you might have obtained from an on-line bibliographic source) and keywords (that you can later search on). The result of this will look something like Figure 4. In this example I have used Heading 1 and Heading 2 styles to format the report title and the subheadings so that I can use Section Coding to quickly code the contents of this document.

Proxy document in NVivo

Figure 4 . The proxy document with information about the text.

Now as you take notes you can type these directly into the proxy document in NVivo. You may want to include some key quotations. Put these against the appropriate page number (and indicate if the quotation spans more than one page). Di Gregorio suggests coding each of these at a node called something like ‘Golden Nuggets’ so that you can later browse all these quotations for suitable use in your final report. If you write your draft report in NVivo then you can cut and paste the quotation from the proxy document in which it appears (or from the node browser on Golden Nuggets) into the draft.

There is a variety of ways in which you can code the contents of such literature review proxy documents. You could code each document at a separate node, or if you have several papers summarized in the same document then you can have a node for each paper and then code the appropriate part of the proxy document at the node. You may also want to code the keywords section of every reference so that you can search keywords by restricting the Search Tool to that node. Other options are to code all work on the same topic at a common node, and all work by the same author to the same node. Again such coding will be of use in restricting searches of the content. If you have pasted quotations into your draft, as suggested above, then you can use node links (or DocLinks if the work is in a document of its own) to link the quotation back to the proxy document where details of the source are preserved. For many purposes there is an even better solution and that is to use document attributes. You can use one attribute for the author (an attribute with a different value for each author) and an attribute for year of publication, theoretical school and so on.

Di Gregorio suggests keeping the proxy document for your notes on the content of the book or paper along with any quotations. Any reflections on the content such as memos, and critical commentaries can be written in other documents and these can be linked to from the appropriate places in the proxy. See Figure 5. You can also use DocLinks to point to other related literature in your literature review journal.

Proxy document with a critical memo linked using a Doc Link in NVivo

Figure 5 . The proxy document with a critical memo linked using a Doc Link.

As I suggested above, many people use dedicated bibliographic software to keep their references. If you do this then it is possible to export the references from these programs (including any abstracts, keywords and notes you have collected) and import them into NVivo. The easiest way to do this is to export a formatted list of all your references and use a word processor to save this in RTF format (so that you keep any italics and bold you have used). A neater solution, if you know how to do it, is to get these programs to export plain text file with appropriate RTF tags already in place. You can then set up headings in the exported document so that you can use coding by section in NVivo (See . For example, if you set up the references as in Figure 6 so that the author is in a heading style and the rest of the reference is in normal style then with section coding you can quickly code every reference to its own node. (This formatting can be done in NVivo, although with a large number of references it is somewhat tedious.) You can then use node sets to organize your examination of the literature. For instance, you can use the Node Set Editor to create a set of all the work published in a certain year, or you can use sets to contain papers you consider central to your project or those you need to read in more detail or those that belong to a particular school of thought, and so on.

A reference formatted for section coding in NVivo

Figure 6 .  A reference formatted for section coding.

If you format the keywords as in Figure 6 then you can easily code all the keywords at a single node (Search for the text ‘Keywords:’ and spread the find to the enclosing paragraph). Then use this node as scope for a search for keywords.


di Gregorio, S. (2000) Using NVivo software for literature reviews. Conference paper, 'Strategies in Qualitative Research: Issues and results from analysis using QSR NVivo and NUD*IST', University of London, 29 & 30 September.

Wolcott, H.F. (1990) Writing up Qualitative Research. (Vol. 20). Newbury Park, London: Sage.