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NVivo for Literature Reviews

Using NVivo Qualitative Research Software for Literature Reviews and Analytical Writing

Why Use NVivo for Your Literature Review?

NVivo can help you produce a high quality literature review. You can use it to:

  • import source documents (including from EndNote or other reference management software)
  • run quantitative text frequency searches. This identifies commonly-occurring terms across all or any documents in your project file
  • develop and test themes—before reading, as you read, and after reading
  • brainstorm and refine themes using a variety of visual techniques
  • capture sections of text as you read and classify them according to themes
  • create a centralised project file which stores your source documents, records of your research journey, and sections of text categorised by theme
  • run search queries across some or all documents in your project file. These could be source documents, coded text, research notes, keywords, abstracts, etc. 

Incorporating NVivo into Your Workflow

The Library provides a guide about planning for your literature review. This includes a possible work flow incorporating NVivo.

This image shows how you could use NVivo alongside EndNote and Microsoft Word. The present guide describes Steps 5, 6, and 7 in more detail (as well as how to use use NVivo without EndNote if you prefer).

Mac and Windows Compatibility

Q: Can I work on the same project across platforms?

A: Yes, but because of compatibility issues and the more limited feature-set of NVivo (Mac), QSR recommends that a master version be created on Windows.

Q: Why might there be problems?

A: Mac and Windows versions of NVivo use different file types: .nvp (Windows) and .nvpx (Mac). The Mac version of NVivo is a

Q: Can I convert Mac and Windows NVivo files from one platform to the other?

A: It depends. Usually, a workaround of some kind is available, but converting project files between platforms is subject to some important limitations.

  • You cannot open an NVivo project created in NVivo Windows on a Mac.
  • From NVivo (Windows), you can export a Mac version of a project created in NVivo (Windows). Follow the Copy Project command discussed later in this guide.
    • Note that some features of the NVivo (Windows) project may be missing from the Mac version. QSR characterises the Mac version of NVivo as a “subset” of the Windows version. For literature reviews, however, we are not aware of any major limitations affecting Mac users.
  • You can open (by converting) an NVivo (Mac) project in NVivo (Windows).
  • NVivo (Mac) projects are larger than NVivo (Windows) projects. QSR advises that very large NVivo (Mac) projects—i.e. larger than 10GB—may not open in NVivo (Windows).

A more detailed explanation of these compatibility issues is provided by QSR here.

Key NVivo Terminology

QSR provides an online overview of key concepts in NVivo.

We explain the most important terms you will need to know to use NVivo for your literature review below. We use these terms throughout this guide.

Please note that in NVivo 12 and earlier versions, the term "Node" was used instead of "Code".

  • Code: A Code represents a theme, topic or concept. Each Code becomes a "virtual container". A Code stores sections of source documents that you allocate to a theme, topic or concept.
    • Parent Code: A Code which has (an)other Code(s) located within it.
    • Child Code: A Code located within another Code.
    • Sibling Codes: Two Codes which exist at the same level in the Code hierarchy. E.g. two Parent Codes, or two Child Codes within a Parent Code.
  • Coding: The process of 1) classifying sections of source documents based on themes, then 2) allocating them to Codes.
  • Memo: A document within NVivo that records useful information. When you import documents from Endnote, for example, NVivo can create Memos recording keywords, abstracts, notes, etc. You can also create Memos yourself. Memos are discussed later in this guide here.
  • Classification: Descriptive information about a source document. For example bibliographic metadata either imported from EndNote or entered by you.
  • Query: A search or combination of searches. You can run these across your source documents, Codes, and/or any Memos or Classifications.
  • Coding Report: Another term for a Code, but with an emphasis on final or interim results. Clicking on a Code at any time generates a report of all sections of text that have been coded to that Code. Some users describe this as a Coding Report.

The NVivo Screen

The NVivo work area has four screens:

  • Navigation View (left)
  • List View (centre)
  • Detail View (right).
  • Toolbar/Ribbon (top)


Tip: PDFs, Text Readability, and Internal vs External Files in NVivo


There is an important difference in NVivo between Internal Files and External Files.

  • Internal Files: source documents for which the full text is available within NVivo (e.g. as PDF, doc/x, txt, etc.).
  • External Files: source documents for which the full text is not available, but which can be manually populated with text by the user.

Here are some general rules of thumb to help you organise an NVivo project for a literature review.

Text Readability

Something you will want to bear in mind here is "text readability".

  • A document is text-readable if a computer can recognise individual words. This allows users to copy or search any of the text.
  • Text files or Word documents (doc or docx files) are text-readable. Most recently-created PDFs are also text-readable.
  • Adobe Acrobat Pro and Microsoft Word can often create a text-readable version of a PDF.

Some reasons why text-readable PDF versions of source documents may not be available:

  • Some e-books and journal articles may be available as PDFs but are DRM-protected. This can prevent full-text access.
  • Old methods of scanning books or journal articles as PDFs. PDFs created in the past may not be text-readable. OCR may not work with old PDFs.
  • The printed document itself is of poor quality. For example, with documents typed with manual typewriters, a lack of uniformity may make text recognition impossible.
  • Copyright restrictions may prevent the creation or use of a PDF. More information regarding your copyright obligations as a user of material provided by Deakin is available by following this link.

Using Text-Readable PDF and Text Documents as Internal Files in NVivo

NVivo works best with text-readable PDFs or text files.

  • When importing text-readable PDFs or text files, NVivo creates new copies. It stores them as Internal Files.
  • Text-readable PDFs or text files are the easiest documents to Code in NVivo. The Coded text is also available for extra functions such as Word Frequency Searches.
  • Hence wherever you can access or create a text-readable pdf, you should.

Non-Readable PDFs

If you have access to a PDF but the full text is not readable (e.g. because of DRM or OCR problems), you have to make a choice.

  • You can import the PDF as an Internal File.
    • This will allow you to Code the PDF on-screen and see the results of your Coding as highlighting on the PDF.
    • However, you will be Coding by region instead of text. This means NVivo will take screenshots of the parts of the PDF you assign to Nodes. Thus NVivo's text-based functions (e.g. Word Frequency Searches and Text Queries) will not be available.
  • Alternatively, you can create an External File.
    • This allows you to populate a text document with key sections of text that you enter yourself.
    • You will not be able to read or see the actual document within NVivo. Nor will you see your Coding as highlighting on the document. But NVivo will be able to access the limited text you enter for Word Frequency Searches, Text Queries, etc.

What if I have no PDF?

Creating your own PDF versions of source documents is usually straightforward. But check for copyright restrictions first. 

You can get free or inexpensive scanning apps for most smartphones. Try Clear Scan or Genius Scan.

Q: What if I only want to reference a small part of a hard-copy text? I don't want to go to the trouble of scanning a document.

A: Your best option is to create an External File and populate it yourself within NVivo.