Using NVivo to organize literature searches

I know that many people are using software now to organize the literature searches they have done and the literature that they have read.  From Mendeley to Endnote, and everything in between, we need tools to organize the volume of information that we encounter as researchers.  I have recently started using a different approach.  I might still store the articles and citations themselves in reference software, but I have started using qualitative analysis software programs to help organize my literature searches and notes.

In doing this, I am working to find the connections between the various pieces I am reading.  From books to articles; novels, academic texts, and historical accounts; newspaper articles; and other materials that I have collected; I have used the advice from the appendix in C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination to help craft a new approach to reading and working with the literature.  As a mixed methods researcher, I work in both qualitative and quantitative analysis software fairly regularly.  One day, I was coding some documents in my qualitative software, and it occurred to me that this would be very useful in thinking about the existing research literature as well.

To start, I created a new project that is my “literature file”.  I then created an “internal” (as they are called in NVivo software – this could be done in any software, but since I am using this one I will use the terminology from that application) for each article, book, etc. that I am reading or had recently read.  Each of these files now contains the full citation for the piece followed by detailed notes that were taken as I read each piece.  I also create daily memos with my research ideas and thoughts (an electronic version of my research journal).  I can then go back and code different things in what I have read (if I import the article itself as a pdf) or in my notes in the software.  I create “sets” for the different topic areas that I am reading in (e.g., “policing research”, “gang research”, “Scared Straight research”) to help organize the contents (and allow me to see what I have read and taken notes on in each subject area fairly quickly).  I can then do theme analysis to find the articles that mention common areas.  This lets me build my literature reviews in a systematic way and helps to prevent leaving out key pieces that are not in my memory at the time.

Another useful tool from this is finding common themes across different areas of study that I might not have otherwise examined or discovered.  This is the electronic equivalent of “dumping out the files” and reorganizing them as discussed in C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination.

This trick might be useful for others seeking to find connections across areas of the literature that don’t appear to be connected initially, and for those who struggle to organize all of the information covered in literature reviews (or who fear leaving out key research).

More tidbits, tricks, and tips to come.  Carry on, and Happy Researching!

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