Using Qualitative Data Analysis Software for Literature Reviews

This post is about my search for a qualitative data analysis (QDA) software solution for writing literature reviews. I review ATLAS.ti 8 and NVivo for Mac.

One of the challenges of writing a dissertation is compiling, organizing, and synthesizing sources. Reference managers such as Mendeley and EndNote are great for inserting bibliographic information into text documents or grouping sources by chosen tags, but they are not great for coding and analyzing connections between documents or keeping track of ideas and thoughts. Note-taking software such as Evernote is great for taking notes from classes or articles, clipping webpages, and organizing thoughts, but again, there is limited functionality for drawing connections between bodies of literature or visualizing connections. Hence the need for a software capable of organizing, coding, and connecting concepts, ideas, and themes.

Both NVivo and ATLAS.ti are designed for executing qualitative (text based) research. To be fair, neither program is specifically designed for writing literature reviews, however, literature reviews are essentially qualitative data analysis. This review is specific to the Mac versions of the two softwares which have slightly different functionality than the Windows versions.

Below are short bulleted lists of the pros and cons of each program. I ended up choosing ATLAS.ti because PDF rendering issues in NVivo were bad enough to be prohibitive of its use. I also have a feeling that knowing how to use ATLAS.ti will serve me in the future when I conduct qualitative research projects outside of literature reviews. However, had the rendering not been a problem, NVivo is easier and more effective for the purpose of conducting lit reviews. One additional suggestion that may make coding texts easier is to get a subscription to Adobe Acrobat Pro (they have special student pricing too) and use the enhance PDF tool to OCR every PDF you plan on importing into ATLAS.ti or any other QDA program. This process help with text recognition when you are selecting and coding text.

NVivo for Mac

Example of a list of coded text from one document in NVIVO
Example of a list of coded text from one document in NVivo. Click image for full-size.


  • Easy to create and code documents
  • Allows document importation from citation managers such as Mendeley
  • Allows memos to be edited and coded just like core document files
  • Has text query capability
  • Provides summary of coded text with marker for source document (see screenshot below)
  • Easy to create code hierarchies wherein multiple codes can be subcategories of a higher level code


  • PDFs do not properly render leading to choppy, slow scrolling action and in some cases, total program freeze—this makes the program very slow to use
  • When viewing documents with coded text visible, there seems to be a bug that causes the view to default back to the original hidden setting instead of your preferred view

Pricing As of January 9, 2017:

  • Student annual subscription $103
  • Student Full subscription $570

ATLAS.ti for Mac

Article coding in Atlas.ti.
Article coding in ATLAS.ti. Click image for full-size.


  • Easy to create and code documents
  • Decent PDF rendering and performance
  • Lots of functionality beyond coding including visualization, quantitative-type analysis of qualitative data, and network analysis capability
  • Sophisticated user interface


  • Cannot import bibliographic files with metadata and accompanying PDFs
  • Cannot code memos
  • Cannot edit documents even if they are in RTF or .docx formats
  • Cannot link memos to documents easily
  • Cannot easily create code hiearchies


  • 2-Year Student license $99


Neither tool is perfect: NVivo has performance issues, but good functionality for the purposes of a lit review. Maybe in the future, once they solve these issues, it will be a clear winner. For now, the bugs cripple the application beyond usability for me.

I’m in the early stages of getting to know ATLAS.ti and will post an update when I have new information to share.

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One Comment

  1. Dear Juniper,

    Thank you for your clear comparison between the two software, especially in terms of literature review.

    I have searched a lot about using Nvivo for literature review. I gave it a try but my pre-defined source classification is double the sources. I imported the RIS files to Nvivo. I tried to find out what I did wrong but still couldn’t figure out.

    Your suggestion would be much appreciated.

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