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NVivo for Literature Reviews

Using NVivo 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 Codes;
  2. reading through your source documents and Coding text to a relevant Code or Codes as you go; and
  3. with the help of Coding Stripes, refining your Codes and re-Coding text as needed.

Creating and Working with Codes

You should have at least some preliminary Codes 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 Codes.

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



Here are some pointers to assist with creating Codes.

Create a Child Code

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

What does "Aggregate coding from children" mean?

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

  • The number of text references Coded to each Code appears in the List View. If the "Aggregate..." box is checked, then the List View total for that Code will include the Child Codes for that Code, as well as the Parent Code. If the box is not checked, then the Child Codes will not be included.
  • You are probably more likely to leave this box unchecked if you are Coding text to the Parent Code in its own right as well as the Child Codes. 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 Code. If you are Coding only to the Child Codes, however, there is no real downside to aggregating.

How to Merge Codes

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

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

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 Codes 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.)



  1. Select Codes 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 Code.
  2. Drag and drop the text to your chosen Code (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 Code or to a New Code. To Code to a new Code, drag and drop onto the blank area underneath the existing Codes in the List View. Or you can right-click and select Code—the New Code 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 Codes in the Navigation View,
  • the tally of references for the relevant Code 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 Codes. But for literature reviews, Coding text to multiple Codes where relevant can be helpful.

  • For example, Coding to multiple Codes makes it easier to run Text Search Queries (discussed later in this guide here) across one or more Code(s) without the risk that you may already have excluded relevant information (i.e. information also relevant to a second Code). 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 Codes 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 Code. Clicking on a Coding Stripe highlights text in the current document that has been Coded to that Code; 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.