How I use Excel to manage my Literature Review

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:

David comment on excel lit review

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:

Lit Review 1

Headings

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’.

Happy thoughts

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:

Lit Review 2

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.

Lit Review 3

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!

Lit Review 4

Do you use Excel to manage your literature review?

Do you have any ‘unusual’ headings too?

Any tips to share? 

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