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NVivo for Literature Reviews

Using NVivo 12 Qualitative Research Software for Literature Reviews and Analytical Writing

Introduction to Coding

Whether you are using NVivo for your literature review or another purpose, Coding is how you will spend most of your time.

The essential process involves:

  1. setting up preliminary Nodes;
  2. reading through your source documents and Coding text to a relevant Node or Nodes as you go; and
  3. with the help of Coding Stripes, refining your Nodes and re-Coding text as needed.

Creating and Working with Nodes

You should have at least some preliminary Nodes in mind before you begin reading and Coding within NVivo. The previous page of this guide discusses optional brainstorming functions within NVivo to help you with identifying Nodes.

To create a Node, open the Create tab on the top ribbon (or select Nodes in the Navigation View and right-click in the List View) and select Node. The New Node box looks like this.


Screenshot of NVivo dialogue box to create a new Node


Here are some pointers to assist with creating Nodes.

Create a Child Node

  • If you want to create a Child Node (i.e. a Node within a Node), select the Node you want to be at the higher level before opening the New Node box. (The "Hierarchical name" field will show where in the hierarchy of Nodes your new Node will be located.)
  • You can drag and drop Nodes after they have been created to change their place in the Node hierarchy.

What does "Aggregate coding from children" mean?

The New Node box has an option to "Aggregate coding from children".

  • The number of text references Coded to each Node appears in the List View. If the "Aggregate..." box is checked, then the List View total for that Node will include the Child Nodes for that Node, as well as the Parent Node. If the box is not checked, then Child Nodes will not be included.
  • You are probably more likely to leave this box unchecked if you are Coding text to the Parent Node in its own right as well as the Child Nodes. In this case, if you do check the "Aggregate..." box, it will be hard to see at a glance how many references you have coded to the Parent Node. If you are Coding only to the Child Nodes, however, there is no real downside to aggregating.

How to Merge Nodes

To merge one Node into a second Node, click on the first Node and select Copy (by right-clicking or Ctrl-C). Then right-click on the second Node and select Merge into Selected Node.

  • There is also an option to Merge into a New Child Node. But to achieve the same result, it is probably simpler to just 1) re-name the first Node (the intended Child Node), then 2) drag it into the second Node (the intended Parent Node).

Coding: Set Up, Applying, Revising

As soon as you have imported some source documents, you can begin Coding. It is usually better to create at least a few Nodes first too!

Below are some pointers to guide you through the process.

Setting Up the NVivo Workspace

The first step is to set up your NVivo workspace.

  1. Open the document you would like to Code.
    1. Click on Files (or Externals) in the Navigation View.
    2. Open the document by double-clicking on the name of the document in the List View (or right-click and select Open PDF). The document will open in the Detail View.
    3. Adjust the view of the document as necessary in the Detail View.
      • If the document has bookmarks, you can make them invisible by unchecking the Bookmarks box at the left of the top ribbon.
      • You can change the size of the document by adjusting the slider at the bottom right of screen.
    4. By default, NVivo assumes that PDFs are text-readable. In the PDF Selection area of the top ribbon, the default (and usually most appropriate) setting is therefore Text.
    5. We recommend turning on Coding Stripes. (Working with Coding Stripes is discussed further below.)


NVivo screenshot showing how to set up screen for coding


  1. Select Nodes in the Navigation View, so that these are displayed in the List View.

Coding Text

Now, as you read through the source document,

  1. Highlight text you would like to Code to a Node.
  2. Drag and drop the text to your chosen Node (or right-click and select Code). With drag and drop Coding, your selection may disappear as you begin to drag. If you see a circle with a line through it as you move the text across the screen, it's working!
  3. You can Code to any existing Node or to a New Node. To Code to a new Node, drag and drop onto the blank area underneath the existing Nodes in the List View. Or you can right-click and select Code—the New Node button appears at the bottom left of the dialogue box.


Screenshot showing Coding in progress including Coding Stripes


After each instance of Coding,

  • a black dialogue box will briefly appear pointing to Nodes in the Navigation View,
  • the tally of references for the relevant Node will increase in the List View, and
  • a coloured Coding Stripe will appear alongside the text you have Coded.

For some qualitative research projects, it can be better to avoid Coding the same text to multiple Nodes. But for literature reviews, Coding text to multiple Nodes where relevant can be helpful.

  • For example, Coding to multiple Nodes makes it easier to run Text Search Queries (discussed later in this guide here) across one or more Node(s) without the risk that you may already have excluded relevant information (i.e. information also relevant to a second Node). Such Queries can be used to identify different classes of similar information (e.g. climate change responses which focus on science vs focusing on policy).

Coding Stripes

In practice, Coding Stripes are very helpful. Especially in the early stages of Coding, you will find it necessary to refine your Nodes as your reading progresses. As a result you will probably need to chop and change your Coding.

  • Coding Stripes make it easy to see what you have Coded to a particular Node. Clicking on a Coding Stripe highlights text in the current document that has been Coded to that Node; and
  • Coding Stripes also make it easy to undo earlier Coding. Simply right-click on the Coding Stripe alongside previously Coded text and choose Uncode.