Abandon your Word tables! Using Excel to manage your literature review can make research quicker, easier – and yes – fun.
A short while ago, David posted this comment on How I use Scrivener for academic writing:
I promised I would write a post about it. So here it is. But before we get down to the mechanics of Excel….
A little note about my literature review
The methodology for my Professional Doctorate is autoethnography. I’ll be posting a fuller explanation of autoethnography in due course, but for the purposes of this post all you need to know is that this type of research uses self-examination and story in order to promote new ways of thinking, and help others make sense of their own lives and culture.
Initially, a systematic review of the literature appealed to me. I’m a lawyer. I like structure. So I begin my systematic review, looking for autoethnographic articles on Web of Science, HeinOnline, LexisNexis etc. My days as working in a library mean that I’m pretty au fait with boolean operators and the like – however, my searches yielded very few results. Key texts (which I knew existed, as I had read them) didn’t appear.
At the same time as conducting my systematic review, I was reading a minimum of one article on autoethnography per day. I was following bibliographies. Each article I read led me to another, then another, then another. And I made my choices based on the knowledge that I wanted to accumulate. For example, I wanted to specifically look at autoethnographic articles which were located in the educational world. Articles about disability and discrimination were very powerful, but they were not within the scope of my review. This process of “systematized creativity” or intuitive research is a feature of an abductive approach to reasoning (Andreewsky & Bourcier, 2000; Taylor, Fisher, & Dufresne, 2002). Rather than follow a linear process, an abductive approach allows for the type of intuition I was using when finding the next article.
I suspect that I am drawn to an abductive approach because its focus is on interpretation and understanding new perspectives. These are phrases that are strongly associated with autoethnography. It makes sense to me that an autoethnographer would approach the literature in this way.
So that’s the way I’m reviewing the literature. One step at a time. One article or book at a time. And I’m following my nose.
So what’s this spreadsheet about?
Aha! So here’s where the lawyer in me comes right back to the fore. I wanted to create a table that I could manage effectively. Where I could move the data with ease. And, because seeing how far I’ve come helps to keep me feeling positive, where I could easily find out how many articles I’d read!
My spreadsheet is basic. It is not all singing and dancing, and I’m sure there are lots of clever things I’m missing out on. But its simplicity works for me.
This is how it looks when I open it up:
You’ll see that across the top, in row 1, I’ve chosen a heading for each column. Originally, I used headings from lit reviews that I had seen elsewhere. But those headings, and the placement of the columns, didn’t work for me. There were some columns I never filled in. And I found it hard to remember what some headings were for. So, over time, I made my own, to suit the purpose of my review and the topic I am reviewing (in this case autoethnography). For example, I like to have the ‘conclusions’ column right at the front – I don’t want to hide it away in column ‘S’.
The photo above only shows the columns I can see when I open the spreadsheet. If you were to scroll to the right, you’d also see these headings:
I did say I made my own headings up…
But the “happy thoughts” and “unhappy thoughts” columns are where I can place all of my critical thinking, abstract comment, and queries (and what I sometimes think are really impressive points, but later on turn out to be a load of rubbish). In happy thoughts, I’ll often write about what I loved about the work or how I can use that work to frame my own. In unhappy thoughts, I might note if the text is fairly hard going and perhaps needs a few reads, or any contradictions I might have picked up. I also use this space to record where I don’t agree with the author.
The “ethical concern” sections are there because many of my papers and publications on autoethnography concern ethics. I wanted to capture if the author of the work raised any ethical issues, and if I had any. This is furthest away as it is not my primary concern at the moment. I regularly move my columns around.
Being able to move things around, easily
If I click the drop down box at the bottom right of the ‘Author’ column, Excel will order that column A-Z or Z-A within a second. This is incredibly useful if, like me, you add rows in all over the place. I know I can insert a new row anywhere I like and with the touch of a button Excel will put it in alphabetical order. Similar with year – I’m looking at the history of autoethnography at the moment and I was interested to see the spread of articles across the years. Click the drop down box at the bottom right of ‘Year’ and Excel orders the list. Same goes for any other column.
Seeing how far you’ve come
This is where I’m up to today. There’s something very satisfying in seeing you’ve nearly read 100 articles!
Do you use Excel to manage your literature review?
Do you have any ‘unusual’ headings too?
Any tips to share?
19 thoughts on “How I use Excel to manage my Literature Review”
Definitely have to try using Excel. Thanks for sharing your experience! This is really helpful!
Also, like this method of managing literature review because I can use filters in Excel. Yahoo!
This is really helpful – thanks for sharing your process. I’m starting a minor thesis and just trying to get my head around how to manage workflow, especially for the lit review. I was wondering if you could comment on the benefits of using spreadsheets for this over a reference manager like Zotero, which enables notes and annotations etc.
Hi Amy. Thanks for your lovely message. I’m glad you found my ramblings helpful!
I use my lit review spreadsheet and a reference manager (I use EndNote). When I read a new article, I capture the information on my spreadsheet first. Then I go to EndNote and add the article there too. I always attach the article to EndNote so I’ve got it available in my library. I don’t do any annotations/notes on EndNote as I use my spreadsheet for that. I imagine this might seem a bit messy, but it works for me and I think it’s just seeing what is the best fit for you. I like knowing that if I want to read an article, I can pop to my EndNote library. But if I want to see what I was thinking about it, or just get a feel for my reactions to an author’s body of work, I can go to my spreadsheet and quickly view the information there. I’m quite visual, so I think I like seeing my comments/thoughts/conclusions all in one place, so I can – at a glance – compare and contrast. Hope that helps.
Hi–thanks for this. Writing a Phd in political theory and found your post helpful. Quick question. Do you find it difficult to plug in a lot of text when using Excel? Also, have you tried using the table option in Scrivener for lit reviews?
Hi me again. I’m shocking when it comes to Excel. Was wondering if you could send along a template you use for your lit reviews in Excel? Would be greatly appreciated! I haven’t found any online that look as good as the examples you’ve posted. Thanks!
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Thanks Nazeer. No, I don’t find it hard, but then I keep text to a minimum as my goal is to capture key issues. I haven’t used the table option. Good luck with your PhD!
Hello! I am also interested in the template did you get it and may you please share with me
Am starting my senior research for undergraduate, and I would really appreciate if you could share a template of your spreadsheet.
Also starting my research internship, would it be possible to share your template with me?
My systematic literature review started with 110 articles to read. I had a column for exclusion (didn’t meet criteria after the initial read of 1200 titles and abstracts). Also had one for “reviewied” (which made sure that the key fields had some value (formula to make sure they weren’t empty) and “time” beacause I wanted to know how long it took me per article, and on average.
Filtering articles by age of the cohort, evidence quality of the study and more were very useful in excel.
I’m taking a Research Methods class this year and have to write a literature review for it. Since I want to do a literature review on my Undergraduate Dissertation question – which I’ll begin next year – I decided it’d make things a whole lot easier for myself to keep track of all that I read. I’m so glad to find that someone else has made use of Excel for this! Reading this article has given me some good ideas about how to structure my own organised reading table. Thanks for sharing your wisdom 😉
I would also be interested in a template if you have it available.
I enjoyed reading the article! It has several very helpful tips on organizing my lit review excel. I am not sure if there is any chance to ask a question about it, since the article is not new, but I will try. I see that authors can be easily found in alphabetical order, but what if there are several authors? I only see papers with one author in the example above. I am curious how to best organize the “Author” column for papers with multiple authors to be searchable by author.
Wonderful, simple, effective. Wish I had seen this a year ago.
This looks like a great way of organising a lit review. I found your blog post after googling “organising literature review in Excel” as I keep reading more and more articles, and I want a way to keep track of them. Did you use citation software as well or did you rely on the citations that you formatted in the Excel when referencing?
Thank you for writing and sharing this it has helped me so much.
I was so worried about how to document specific details from articles I had read for later analysis. This article is lovely to read, full of excellent tips and easy to follow.
It was the just the thing I needed to find!
I am writing a note to say thank you because this is your hard work you have put out there for people to use or read and not many people say thank you enough.
Thank you so much.. it’s helped significantly for one of my assessments for my MSc.