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NVivo for Literature Reviews

Using NVivo Qualitative Research Software for Literature Reviews and Analytical Writing

About Importing Source Documents

To begin, the first step is to import source documents (e.g. journal articles, commentary, etc.).

You may already have a large number of source documents before you begin using NVivo. Alternatively, you could set up an NVivo project file at a preliminary stage in your research and use NVivo from the beginning to develop themes for your literature review.

You can import source documents either from EndNote (or alternative reference management software such as Zotero or Mendeley) or directly into NVivo (as PDFs, Word docs, etc.).

There are many advantages to using EndNote and NVivo in combination:

  • A streamlined workflow from commencement to writing up your final literature review. For example the workflow suggested earlier.
  • Bibliographic metadata can be imported from Endnote into NVivo as Classifications.
  • Abstracts, Keywords, Notes and Research Notes can be transferred from Endnote into NVivo as Memos. Memos can be incorporated into NVivo's Word Frequency Searches and Text Queries.

On this page we discuss importing from EndNote first. If you'd prefer, skip ahead to instructions about importing documents directly into NVivo.

Organising Your EndNote Library to Use with NVivo

For information about using EndNote generally, please see the EndNote Resource Guide.

These tips may be helpful when organising your EndNote library for exporting.

Attaching PDFs Within EndNote

Attaching PDFs to EndNote references will generally mean you can use the PDFs in NVivo.

NVivo works best with text-readable PDFs. You should try to attach text-readable PDFs to EndNote references where you can. For tips on OCR and text readability, see the discussion about PDFs, Text Readability, and Internal vs External Files in NVivo on the previous page.

Highlights or annotations that you make to PDFs in EndNote will be carried over into NVivo.

Endnote only exports one PDF file per EndNote reference to NVivo.

  • Q: What if I want to export several chapters from an edited book?
  • A: It's best to create an EndNote reference for each chapter and attach a PDF to each reference.
  • Q: What if I only need one Endnote reference but want to include a number of PDFs in NVivo, for example a single-authored book?
  • A: You should import the second (and any subsequent) PDF(s) manually into NVivo. Instructions for manual imports into NVivo are available below.

If the EndNote PDF is DRM-protected, this will limit the use of that document within NVivo.

Populating EndNote References

NVivo can also use EndNote references to create:

  • Reference Classifications based on bibliographic metadata.
  • External Files that you can populate with sections of text for coding. This would be relevant where no PDF version of a document is available. External Files are discussed earlier here.
  • Memos based on the Abstract, Keywords, Notes, and Research Notes fields in EndNote references.

These External Files, Classifications, and Memos are useful to have within NVivo. You can incorporate them into Queries and search their full text in combination with PDF source documents and Codes (i.e. sections of text grouped by theme). Hence it is a good idea to try to make sure that:

  • EndNote references record all useful bibliographic information.
  • You populate the Abstract, Keywords, Notes, and Research Notes fields within EndNote, to the extent this information is available. Sometimes when you import a RIS file into EndNote, it doesn't have an abstract or keywords. You can obtain supplementary abstract and keyword information from the Library website, journal databases, or Google Scholar. You can use the Research Notes field to record your own information about the relevant source document (e.g. possible responses/criticisms, or the research trail you followed to find the document).

Maintaining Your EndNote Library

Below is the procedure for exporting your EndNote library as an XML file.

  • NB: NVivo finds the documents attached to your EndNote library based on the location of the EndNote Data file at the time you export the XML file. Please do not move your EndNote Data file before you import your XML file into NVivo!

As your research progresses, it is likely you will need to export supplementary XML files from Endnote to add to your NVivo project file. To make this process as seamless as possible:

  • Limit supplementary XML file(s) to references you've added since the previous export. You could set up each export as an EndNote Group, for example. This will help to keep track of references you have already exported.
  • Use the same EndNote library to export XML files each time. Problems may arise if multiple EndNote libraries are used to export XML files, even where those XML files have the same name. (E.g. Library X used to export "NVivo Test.xml", Library Y used to export "NVivo Test.xml.)



Importing Source Documents From EndNote

The procedure for exporting your EndNote library and importing the library into NVivo is as follows.

Step 1: Export XML File from EndNote

  1. Open Endnote.
  2. Decide if you want to export your entire Endnote library or only specific items. If the latter, make sure your chosen items are selected on screen. For example, you could set up a Group containing the items you would like to export, then select the whole Group.
  3. Choose Export from the File menu. You should see the following box.


EndNote XML file export


  1. Choose a file name and destination folder that you remember. You will need to navigate to the XML file from within NVivo.
  2. Make sure the file type is XML.
  3. The Output style does not seem to make a significant difference. We recommend choosing a style that is common in your discipline, to be on the safe side.
  4. If you are exporting selected items, make sure the Export Selected References box is checked. To export your whole library, leave this box unchecked.

Step 2: Import EndNote XML File into an Empty NVivo Project

  1. Open NVivo and create a new blank project. (If you want to add an XML file to documents you have already imported into NVivo, jump ahead to Step 3.)
  2. Under the Import tab at the top of screen, select the Bibliography icon. (You can also select Files in the Navigation View, right-click in the List View, and find Endnote under the "Import from" menu.)
  3. You should see a box like the following.


Screenshot of NVivo import XML file


  1. At the top of the box, there are drop-down options to choose whether:
    • to organise your source documents in NVivo by Author/Year or Title.
    • to use an omnibus "Reference" classification or distinguish between Journal Articles, Books, etc.
  2. The first time you import an EndNote library, all the records to be imported will be included in the "Import new" section at the bottom of the box. (The "Already linked" and "To be linked" sections will be greyed out.) The following options are default selections:
    • "Import unmatched records as new files". This means NVivo will create a new File or External file for each EndNote record. Whether a File or External File is created depends on whether you have attached a PDF within Endnote. If you have attached a PDF, the PDF will be copied into NVivo as a File. If not, NVivo will create an empty External file. You should leave the destinations as Files and Externals.
    • "Import content from file attachments..." means NVivo imports PDFs (and any other attachments readable by NVivo) from your EndNote library.
    • "Create memos from abstract, keywords and notes" means NVivo will transfer these items of information from EndNote references to a Memo within NVivo. ("Notes" includes both EndNote's Notes and Research Notes fields.)

Step 3: Import EndNote XML File into an Existing NVivo Project

  1. Open your existing NVivo project.
  2. Under the Import tab at the top of screen, select the EndNote icon. (You can also select Files in the Navigation View, right-click in the List View, and find EndNote under the "Import from" menu.)
  3. You should see a box resembling the following.


Screenshot of NVivo import XML file into existing project 


  1. The total of new records to be imported should appear under the "Import new" section at the bottom of the box. The total records already imported from EndNote should appear in the "Already linked" section.
    • Q: What if I've already imported documents directly into NVivo and these match references in my EndNote library? 
    • A: These should appear in the "To be linked" section.
  2. Note the suggestion above (under "Maintaining your EndNote Library") to set up each export from EndNote as a Group, to help you keep track of references you have already exported.
  3. Sometimes there are problems with NVivo's automatic identification. You can use the Advanced button to match records you are importing from EndNote with documents already in your NVivo project file one-by-one.
  4. Try to ensure that:
    • You don't import new versions of documents you have already Coded. This might happen if you have imported into NVivo a document which you later import as part of an EndNote library. NVivo will not replace the old version of the document with the new one. But having two versions of the same document can lead to you losing track of coding and annotations, and misleading Query results. If you do end up with two versions of the same document, you should delete the newer one as soon as possible.
    • If you have edited Memos or Classifications for documents previously imported into NVivo, don't check the boxes to "Replace classification and attribute values..." or "Replace memo contents...". If you do, you will lose your edits.

Importing Source Documents Directly Into NVivo

The procedure for importing documents directly into NVivo is as follows.

  1. Open a blank or existing NVivo project.
  2. To add bibliographic data manually to source documents as you import them, you need to add potential Classification(s) to your project.
    • Select File Classifications in the Navigation View (or right-click on a document if you have already imported one) and choose New Classification. Use the "Add one or more predefined classifications..." option to add Journal Article, Book, Chapter, etc. as discrete categories. Or you can adopt Reference as a catch-all.
  3. Go to the Import tab and select Files (the filing cabinet icon) and navigate to the document to be imported (e.g. PDF, doc/x, txt). Or you can select Files in the Navigation View, then right-click in the List View and select Import Items.



  1. You have the option to name the document prior to importing.
    • If you have added a Classification such as Reference as per step 2 above, you can enter bibliographic data by selecting the Attributes tab. If not, you can enter bibliographic data later. To do this, right-click on the document after importing, then add a new or existing Classification as per step 2.
  2. As well as reference management software other than Endnote (e.g. Zotero, Mendeley), NVivo can import files from Microsoft Excel, SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, and SPSS. Working with these file types is beyond the scope of this guide.

Organising Source Documents in NVivo

It may be helpful to organise your source documents into folders within NVivo. To create a folder:

  1. Right-click on the location in the Navigation View where you would like to create a folder. For example, right-click on the Files icon to create a folder for full-text source documents.
  2. Select New Folder and name the folder.
  3. Drag and drop items into your new folder.



You can use folders created in this way to organise all of the elements of your NVivo project file: Externals, Codes, Memos, Maps, and Queries.