Literature reviews: NVivo can help

By Dr Lyn Lavery

Conducting a literature review is a central part of the academic research journey, particularly if you’re writing a thesis or dissertation. A literature review provides the background to your topic and forms the basis of your research question(s). Many students view the literature review as a difficult challenge, as they navigate a seemingly never-ending pile of references, and attempt to develop these into a coherent piece of writing. I view the literature review process as an opportunity to learn more about my topic of interest, and in order to maximise my enjoyment of this, I ensure I organise my information as efficiently as possible. This is where NVivo can play a crucial role.

If you’re not familiar with NVivo, it’s a popular qualitative data analysis application (learn more about it at While it is primarily designed to analyse qualitative data such as interviews and focus groups, it’s essentially software that helps you analyse text. Literature is a form of text, and therefore NVivo’s analysis tools can be used to assist you with writing your literature review.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, there are a proliferation of blog posts on the topics including:

If you’d like to see how NVivo is used in a literature review project, we have a one-hour webinar coming up on September 23rd, especially for AUT postgraduate students. For details, and to register, visit:


About Graduate Research School (Auckland University of Technology)

The Auckland University of Technology Graduate Research School offers support and resources to all postgraduate students at AUT. Come and visit us on the 5th floor of the WU building.

2 thoughts on “Literature reviews: NVivo can help

  1. If you don’t want to go a far as Nvivo, Endnote and other reference management tools allow you to assign keywords so that you can find related papers etc. I find using non-traditional keywords like “done”, “use this”, “good quote”, “vilify this”, “my supervisor will like this but its cr*p” or “from UNSW so as you would expect” 😉 very helpful. As a Computer Scientist I’m naturally against using technology excessively or learning software if I don’t have to, and I think the old – print out reference, highlight and put into piles next to topics approach is often a better bet than too much screen time. The big danger in lit reviews in my view is mistaking scanning and filing for thinking – if you are expert in Nvivo, I’m sure you’ll be fine but if you are just starting you may find it to easy to generate something that seems deep but isn’t.
    As always, just my point of view.

  2. I’m always fascinated by the different ways people approach their literature review, so appreciate the comments Dave. I particularly love the non-traditional keywords! Perhaps others could comment on how they combine their own thinking wth technology to organise and produce their literature review?

    I’d agree that unless you already know NVivo (or need to learn it anyway), keeping things simple with bibliographic software such as EndNote might be a better approach. It’s also worth considering what works best for you as an individual – technology doesn’t suit everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with curling up on the couch with an article and some highlighters. A colleague of mine swears by that technique, and she’s one of the best writers I know!

    As an aside, you can import from EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley, and RefWorks into NVivo. That means you can start with something like EndNote and then import your information into NVivo later should you decide this would be helpful.

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