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Dr Jens Hansen

NVivo and Referencing - some possible strategies to add to your toolkit of tricks

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The ability to access references and portions of references as well as notes is fundamental to the academic and research enterprise. But the current process does not quite achieve that although it’s moving towards something that is very satisfactory.


Currently, when working with references and NVivo, we‘re able follow a routine that’s, as far as we can tell, something akin to this:

1. We select needed citations from, e.g. EndNote, after having searched our library database for relevant materials. That may mean invoking Boolean operators to find the appropriate citations from the academic library. Typically, for most academics, such a library will include hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of entries.

2. We export the selected citations from EndNote as XML files to a holding destination.

3. We then import the XML files from that holding destination into NVivo by clicking on the ‘Bibliographic data’ option in External Data icon that’s a feature of the NVivo ribbon.

4. From the pop-up table, we select from the available options, ensuring that requisite fields are imported into the resultant memos which NVivo creates. The default for naming sources is ‘Title’ but the drop-down menu also allows for ‘Author and Year’. It’s also possible from the ‘Assign sources to’ field, to generate either a series of single references, or to assign them to different classifications.

5. We can then open the destination file/s and click on the link/s to the memo/s. created by NVivo.

6. We should, though, make sure that the selected citation is the correct one [there can be occasions, as we’ve discovered, when more than one citation stems from the same author in the same year].

7. Finally, we can code and node away to our brain’s content using both our references and primary data as required.

What we’d like to see built into the above is that the default option for step four has different consequences. There are three outcomes we’d like to propose for inclusion:

1. When materials from EndNote are migrated into NVivo, we’d like to see the full citation become presented as the default option for the ‘Name Sources’ field within the ‘Import from…’ table. (Currently, as we noted above, we’re able to select either ‘Title’ or ‘Author and year’ and currently, ‘Title’ is the default.) To our way of thinking, that does not align with the way in which academics tend to work. We believe they’d prefer to work with the full citation as a default (and they’d like to work with more besides…).

2. We’d like to see a capacity, therefore, of being able to import fuller details as directly as possible into NVivo. This means we’d like to see an option in NVivo for being able to import selected EndNote materials directly into Sources. We see this as being in the form of one or more documents (for Internals) or as inclusions within an external file that have been extracted from a linked file (NVivo to the EndNote library).

3. We’d also like to open imported data directly when it is double clicked rather than having to click on the linked memo to access embedded details. To our way of thinking, going directly to a source is especially important for beginning users of NVivo.


In justifying these three suggestions, we reason that most academics prefer to work with a full citation rather than just a title or an author’s name. But in addition, our own experience tells us that academics want to be able to access a range of selected fields, e.g. key words/abstracts/notes and so on. Quite simply, they want to be able to access, manage, search, and annotate material from fields they’ve selected whilst they are interrogating their primary data. They invariably want to cross-reference their primary data with reference (literature) data. Otherwise, what’s the point of introducing citations and associated fields?


Under the current set-up for NVivo, that can pretty much be achieved when memos are programmed to assume and display selected attributes. But as noted above, full citation details cannot yet currently be displayed as a default for the ‘Name Sources’ option in the pop-up table. Moving on…

Because we think the inbuilt processes of NVivo don’t quite achieve what we’d like to see, we’ve been using some work-around processes. We believe these are quite useful and a tad quicker to use but in sharing them with forum members, we stress that they’re useful for us – that is – they fit with the ways in which we work. Below, we’ve outlined the essentials of our work-around strategies:

  • If we’re working with a single reference:
    • we go to EndNote X4, click on the Hide Empty Fields button (unique to X4 and found in the top right hand corner);
    • select ‘Show All Fields’ from the ‘Output Styles’ option which resides within the ‘Edit’ drop-down menu (An alternative is to use the ‘Open Style Manager’ option within ‘Output Styles’ so that tailor-made options can be generated);
    • we then invoke the ‘Preview’ tab in the ‘Tab Pane’ and copy the contents directly into a ‘new document’ that has been created within NVivo or into a word document for importing as a standalone source.

    [*]If we’re working with multiple references (which might have emerged from Boolean searches):

    • we select citations and whatever fields we’ve opted to invoke after having used ‘Style Manager’;
    • we then use the ‘Format Bibliography’ button so that reference data we’ve selected will be produced as a separate document;
    • and at that point, we can either copy and paste the whole lot into a new document we’ve created within NVivo, or we can import the word document as a standalone source. And, by the way, that procedure also works if you’re importing an important single reference and this can also be achieved with earlier versions of EndNote and with earlier versions of NVivo.

An alternative
we’ve devised involves creating External sources. Here, our goal has been to generate, as simply and as rapidly as possible, an easily accessible repository for reference data. We achieve this by following these steps:
  • we create a new External File and, when the External Properties box shows, we complete the fields so that:
    • the ‘Type’ becomes a ‘File link’ that links to the EndNote library (and that’s what creates speedy access);
    • the contents and units become references (because that’s the unit we’ve created) and the range is however large we, as researchers determine it should be;
    • relevant reference information is then pasted into each external unit as desired.

The advantages of this are twofold: first, we’ve found that we’ve been able to very quickly go to our source library, invoke Boolean searches (or go directly to known references), so that we can select what’s wanted. We’re then able to copy and paste references into the external document divisions or units (which we’ve called references). We could, if we want to, also apply attributes from the Attributes Tab but in practice, we’ve not really found that to be useful for the approach we’re using. We want to underscore that this is really is a very simple work-around that enables us to assemble reference data for coding into a convenient place within NVivo. It’s not perfect but it works for us and it pretty much enables us to show full reference material with which we can work robustly.


We apologise to those who already know about such strategies because the last thing we want to do is teach anybody’s grandparents how to suck the proverbial egg! Indeed, we recognise that it’s quite likely that others amongst the NVivo community may throw their hands up in horror and will have found much simpler solutions. But we have to say that in all honesty, we’ve found these relatively simple approaches have enabled us to quickly assemble what we need by way of reference materials. Note that we are stressing, yet again, that they are useful for our approaches to undertaking qualitative research.


Our hope is that academics and researchers will not be bound by the determinism of the technology, and if they are, we hope they’ll recognise that and speak up so that better ways can be collaboratively developed. We know from conversations with QSR staff that those designing NVivo features already seek to mirror the ways in which academics and researchers actually do their work. We also know that QSR has moved a long, long way towards creating expanded synergies and capabilities within the software. Congratulations are, therefore, in order. But there is still a little way to go. Listening to the whispers and voices of academic and research communities of practice is now necessary and that’s what this forum enables. What do you think?


Dr Jens J. Hansen,

Anna Jo Perry,

Woodhill Park Research Retreat, Aotearoa New Zealand

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