How I work with my material- NVivo

What’s NVivo? you may ask.  It’s a qualitative data analysis software program that I use to keep control of the data that I’m gathering as part of my research.  You can read more about NVivo here. 

I first came across NVivo in its earlier incarnation as NUD*IST, which was a much more playful and memorable name.  I am still using NVivo 7 because my clapped-out old laptop here wouldn’t download NVivo 8, and now I see that there is an NVivo 9.  Fortunately I use mine under my university’s site licence (I think that it’s very expensive) and for now the older versions are still available.

NVivo (or NUD*IST in its earlier life) was developed originally by Lyn Richards, a sociologist at La Trobe University, and it reflects many of the time-honoured ways that academics work with data anyway-  identifying major themes and points (which often found their way onto index cards); highlighting themes in a particular document with different coloured pens, cutting up documents to group all the themes together etc.  NVivo does much the same thing, digitally.  And because every project is different, and because people work differently, no two NVivo outcomes would be the same.

First you need to put a document into NVivo.   This isn’t a problem for me as I type up notes on the computer as I go.  Here’s a shot of all the documents or ‘sources’ that I have about Judge Willis in Melbourne.  Some of them are full transcribed documents, others are my notes.  If I have the document in hard copy or saved as a PDF elsewhere, I might save it as a ‘proxy document’ with a very stripped down content skeleton, with the expectation that I can go back and look at the full document easily.

When you have a document you identify the themes in it.  You call these themes ‘nodes’, and it’s just like tagging, or using a different coloured highlighter pen for each theme.  You develop the themes as you go along.

So, in the picture about, I might be reading Paul de Serville’s ‘Port Phillip Gentlemen’, and I might notice that a paragraph is about ‘authority’ or ‘class’ or ‘gentlemanly expectations’.  I would highlight the paragraph and select the node on the left hand side, or create a new node if it was something that I hadn’t come across before.

This means that you develop a long list of nodes that you’ve identified across all your documents.  You can group related concepts into ‘tree nodes’ or just leave them alphabetical as shown below.  Because you have developed the nodes yourself, you get to know what is there and move around it quite quickly.  When you’re working with a particular document it  also collects the nodes that you’re working on as you go along into a drop-down menu, and as they tend to recur, it means that you’re working with a smaller set. But here is my master list as of today of the Port Phillip nodes I’d developed. If I worked on a new document tomorrow and identified new nodes, they would be added to the list.

So if you want to find, for example, all the documents that you had tagged as being ‘beliefs about convicts’, then you can bring them all up onto the one page.

If you click on the underlined hyperlink, it takes you to the source document where you coded it in NVivo.  It’s better not to code great slabs of material; just enough for you to get the gist and then go back to the source document for the surrounding material.  The real advantage of this is that it means that you don’t forget about material that you read years earlier, especially once it mounts up.  It also brings together the primary and secondary material again when the tendency is to develop the tunnel vision of “now I’m working on letters”, forgetting about the insights you’d discovered in secondary sources. You can write ‘memos’, which are your own reflections on a particular point, which can also be coded and thrown into the pot as well.

You can also go back to a particular document (or ‘source’) and at a glance see the themes that you’d identified in it. For example, here’s my screen for Paul de Serville’s ‘Port Phillip Gentlemen’. At p.128 I’d found information about ‘the nature of Port Phillip society’, ‘party split’ ‘Kerr’ and ‘Fawkner’ and coded that paragraph accordingly.

It is intended that you develop the nodes as you go along which means that at some stage they become big, baggy unwieldy monsters.  At this stage you need to think- do I need to split this concept into smaller nodes? Or alternatively, you find that you’ve made several nodes that are really talking about the same thing-  are they really separate concepts? would I lose some particular quality of the concept if I combined two similar nodes?

It does also mean that sometimes documents you read earlier in your research have concepts that were not apparent to you at the time, but that’s true of research generally.  At least with a digitized program like this, you’re likely to come across the documents again under a different code and can go back and add extra codes as you go.  It’s intended that it keeps growing and changing.  For me, it’s certainly more dynamic than having notes filed in hard copy in folders where you forget you’d ever even seen the document at all.  It also means that my own fleeting reflections in ‘memos’ are brought back to life again.

As I said, I’m using an old version and I note that NVivo 9 has fixed up one of the real bug-bears – being able to see the codes while you’re actually coding- which for some reason you could no longer do, even though very early versions of the program did have this feature.  It would be worth getting NVivo 9 for this feature alone- in fact, it may even prompt me into splashing out for a new computer.  It also claims that you can use PDFs but I’m not sure- earlier versions claimed this too but it only worked for OCR’d or text-based PDFs – not image based PDFs which it inevitably seemed mine were.  I usually just save the PDF on the computer and make a proxy document (i.e. a dot point summary)- it’s too time consuming mucking around with it.

The drawbacks?  The major one is the fear that the whole system is going to crash and that you’ll lose everything.  Also, there is the limitation that you can only get out of it what you put into it-  it takes discipline and routine.  I type up my notes, save them,  print it off  (yes, I do keep hard copy- 2 sheets to a page), put it into Endnote, put it into NVivo, code it,  tick on the top of the hard copy that it has been endnoted and N-Vivo’d and then file it  in a ring folder alphabetically by author. The folders on my bookshelves are multiplying alarmingly.   It also has to be an ongoing process-  I have to be prepared to go back and fix up the deficiencies in the coding when I happen upon a document that I’d read early on, and sometimes this is a bit distracting. But this is the price of keeping it current.  I do have parallel systems: I also tag in Endnote and, to a lesser extent Zotero, which I use for  internet-based material and somewhat less methodically.

And the advantages?  Particularly with my family history of Alzheimer’s, I’m frightened of losing track of all this!  I think that any researcher has this fear, Alzheimers or not.  I’m relatively confident that I can put my hands on the main documents fairly easily.  When I’m working at a conceptual level, it’s easy to grab together all the examples of a phenomenon e.g. ‘loyalty’, and tease it out further because it’s all in one place.  Because primary and secondary sources are intermingled, then I  can find concrete examples relatively easily.  I’m very well aware that I only use it in a rudimentary fashion and that I could probably do other things with it, but I haven’t got time to learn them, and it works just fine for me.

Of course, it doesn’t always work, as this sad experience shows.  I still haven’t found the damned document that I was looking for, and I still don’t know whether it ever existed or whether I read into the document something that really wasn’t there.  In the end, I wrote around it and found other evidence that was good enough-  but I still live in hope that one day I’ll stumble across it again.

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7 responses to “How I work with my material- NVivo

  1. Thankyou very much for this. It helps to read the nuts and bolts of how others are doing their research. It is also helpful to have a review of this software by someone who is actually using it, rather than just reading the sales pitch of the provider.

    I don’t have access to a cheap source of NVivo but I have just downloaded Evernote which sounds similar. I am also experimenting with Zotero. Why do you use both Zotero and Endnote when Zotero seems to have the same functionality as Endnote? I would have thought it would be easier to exclusively use Zotero than chop and change between the two.

    Do you have a regular backup system, say to an external hard drive and/or the cloud? You sound a bit vulnerable there. I managed to lose access to my entire thesis a few weeks before it was due. Fortunately when I started my thesis I had ensured that we had a good backup mechanism, so I breathed relatively easily while we restored the backup. It took a bit of time and needed care but we got there without me losing any work.

    • To be honest, I don’t really know if I understand Zotero properly and I tend to use it just to capture things I see on the internet or digitally as I go- often I’ve only skim-read them. Once I’ve read them properly, and decided that they’re likely to be useful, then they go into Endnote. I guess that it’s a way of distinguishing between the ‘real’ sources that I’m used as distinct from the ‘maybe’s. I’m more accustomed to Endnote and it works well enough for me when I’m writing.

      Your experience with losing access to your thesis is salutary and sobering. I don’t back up as well as I should. I do have an external hard drive that has the whole hard-drive and DVD version of the pertinent files which I leave at uni, but I don’t refresh this as often as I should. I probably should get an other external hard drive and back up more regularly- in fact you may have prompted me. I’ve emailled drafts to Google, and largely in response to your nudge, I’ve set up SugarSynch but it’s taking an awfully long time to synch!

      What do you use?

  2. Good read and learn about your experience with NVivo. While I am very eager to use it, the current support for PDFs is just too bad for me. Almost everything I read is in PDF format and not being able to read it in a ‘good’ readable way is a deal breaker for me.

    I am waiting for NVivo’s next update to come out, they said that they are going to fix this. If they don’t, I will probably try Atlas Ti.

    When it comes to backup, I currently use SugarSync and its working very well for me. Folders are being synced up to the cloud and down to my other laptop, so I have my data in 3 different places. I strongly recommend using SugarSync, and if you need the extra space, invite your friends to use it and you will get extra space for each new account.

    • Yes- I’ve now synched everything with Sugarsync too. There was one very large PDF that it seemed to get stuck on, so I moved that one file onto my desktop (which I’m not synching) and it’s working fine now. I was able to make the important documents fit into the free space they allow- I didn’t bother synching pdfs and images as I have them on DVD anyway and they’re not going to change. I’ve also set up my external drive to back up more regularly- so thank you ‘Perkinsy’- you’ve spurred me into being a little more methodical about all this!

      Perhaps I’m just trying to look on the bright side, but for me, although it’s annoying not being able to code PDFs easily, it does force me into being more discriminating with the PDFs I have. I’m in the habit of harvesting them by the armfuls in the hope that they MIGHT be useful one day. Any that document that actually makes it into NVivo I know I’ve read properly, condensed enough to make a useful proxy document and has been incorporated into the mix. That’s not to say that I don’t wish it was easier though!

      I know that there are other programs out there, but eventually you have to just go with one I guess, even if others come along that might be better.

  3. I love NVIVO too, for the same reasons as you. I have version 9 – I paid for it and will claim it off my tax – and you can also ‘mark’ video and audio files. I am presently experimenting with marking my interview tapes at my nodes, rather than get them transcribed.

    As for worrying you will lose the lot, you can make up a copy of your NVIVO project, which I do around once a week, and store it on a CD or somewhere else that is safe. As I use it inside parallels on a Mac I am a bit paranoid about software failure, so I make a regular copy and save it to my Mac files, which get backed up onto our home back-up system as well as through Sugar Sync.

  4. How does it work for audio files? Do you click on the node and it plays the snippet you’ve coded in an audio player??
    It seems that we are all- with some justification- rather nervous about losing our data when it is in such an intangible form. I wonder if, in the days of index cards, researchers kept a second copy for fear of flood/fire/robbery etc??

  5. Sorry, just returned here after seeing your post promoted in twitter (yes, really!) Yes, you can mark audio files in exactly the same way as text, and play the coded bits as required. I tend to transcribe into text only the bits that I’ve decided are important because of the coding, rather than the whole audio file.

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