Literature Reviews on the Move: Using the ATLAS.ti App to Support and Enhance Your Literature Reviews

June 12, 2014

Author: Steve Wright

If you’re engaged in research or academic work, you will need to “engage with the literature”. If you have an iPad or Android tablet you’re likely to have discovered just how good these devices are for supporting you on the move to read journal articles or eBooks, and for how the devices have apps that allow you to interact with the text to highlight important or interesting passages and make notes on these highlights.

Good practices when reading literature reviews

Reading “the literature” is an essential part of research. Drawing on recommendations made by Phelps, Fisher and Ellis (2007), David Silverman (2010, p. 319) makes the following recommendations:

  1. Never pick up and put down an article without doing something with it.
  2. Highlight key points, write notes in the margin and write summaries elsewhere.
  3. Transfer notes and summaries to where you will use them in your dissertation.
  4. Ensure that each note will stand alone without you needing to go back to the original.

In this article I aim to show you how ATLAS.ti and its iPad app can support the literature review process from the point of view of the the recommendations shown above. Further, I will show how the ATLAS.ti app enables  you to link together your notes and highlights across texts and even to directly link those pertinent aspects of the literature to your empirical data. This can then help re-cast the literature review to support and encourage making “the literature review ”a dialogue between ideas and evidence” as advocated and explored by Ragin (1994).

Getting the literature onto your tablet

In this article I assume you’re already confident and capable in collecting together PDF versions of articles or eBooks, or creating PDFs from scans. I also assume you’re aware of the importance of renaming files when you download them to reflect their content, and that you store your PDFs in a way that you can access them on your tablet – either by using a cloud storage service or bibliographic management software with attachments such as Endnote or Mendeley. This article then shows you how you can use the ATLAS.ti tablet app to support all four of the steps above, especially points 2 and 3.

In the examples I use the “Endnote” app on iPad which allows me to manage my references and insert citations while writing and also to attach PDFs to the references in the library. This programme has opportunities for annotating PDFs in the desktop software and (very limited) options for annotating and highlighting in the iPad app. However I have typically opened PDFs in a different app (GoodReader or Acrobat Reader) in order to read them and highlight them – until I started using the ATLAS.ti app.

Why would you code the literature?

When coding you essentially do two things – you create a highlight (a quotation) to which you can add a comment. You then attach a code to that quotation. These codes acts as collecting devices: linking together different quotations that share a common feature.

These collections (codes) can then be used to search and retrieve information about the document they came from (the document name which should tell you about its origins), the text you highlighted (the quotation), any comments you made about why you highlighted that particular text (the comment). Rather than having lots of highlights and notes in individual documents separated and hard to find you can now use the collections to retrieve and view those sections together – greatly facilitating their use and re-use.

A worked example

I followed, with the ATLAS.ti iPad app, the four steps described below as I was reading a small selection of literature in preparation for a job interview for a post-doc role. I was marking sections in the text where there were continuities between my work in one field (mobile devices being used in sensory assessment) with another field (mobile devices being used in emergency response). As I read the papers and found sections in this other field which had a clear link with my work, I wanted to collect these together. I used the code “thesis_continuities”.

I was also looking for sections to use as quotes in my presentations.  Some of these would be about continuities whilst others might just be just “good quotes” about the situations, settings and ideas explored in the literature I’m reading. This is one of those things you find when you’re reading – those sentences that are so clearly and succinctly written, so pithy, that they invite being used as direct quotations rather than summarised or just referred to. For this I use the temporary code “quotable”, just to capture those sections that I might want to quote as quotable text.

The steps are the following:

Step 1. Opening the PDF documents in the iPad app

First open the ATLAS.ti iPad app and create a new project (see page 11 of the iPad app manual). You will then add files to this from your reference management or cloud storage.

In Figure 1 you can see some of my references in the endnote app. By clicking on a reference where the attachment is downloaded, I can then view the PDF document. The same approach applies with other apps such as Dropbox and Mendeley.

Figure 1-Opening a PDF document in the Endnote app on iPad.

Figure 1-Opening a PDF document in the Endnote app on iPad.

With the PDF document open I then choose to open it in my ATLAS.TI.ti iPad app through the open in dialogue (Figure 2).

Figure 2-Opening a PDF in the ATLAS.ti app.

Figure 2-Opening a PDF in the ATLAS.ti app.

Note: For more detail of these steps please refer to pages 14-15 of the ATLAS.ti app manual.

It is really important that you name the documents in the project in a meaningful way. This is essential so that the output of search results, or queries, are unambiguously associated with a defined reference and from there to your citation manager. I would recommend adopting a strict, clear and consistent file naming convention such as:


For example:


The information in this primary document (PD) name is then readable and unambiguously associates it with the way appear as an in-text reference:

Büscher & Urry (2009)

And the full reference:

Büscher, M., & Urry, J. (2009). Mobile methods and the empirical. European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1), 99-116. doi: 10.1177/1368431008099642

This is critical for search results to be meaningful and useful down the line so make sure you are disciplined and consistent now! (In general it is a good idea to rename PDFs in this way rather than with the default publisher download filename!) You will also need to rename your PDs in this way so they are easily read and understood – keeping the two consistent is advised.

Step 2. Highlighting, making notes and summaries

Now that you have one, or more, files imported into the iPad app you can use it to support you in steps 1 and 2 of the “good literature review practices”:

  1. Never pick up and put down an article without doing something with it.
  2. Highlight key points, write notes in the margin and write summaries elsewhere.

You read the article, you highlight sections and you add notes in the margin. See  figure 3 below.

Figure 3-Highlighting a section of text in the ATLAS.ti iPad app.

Figure 3-Highlighting a section of text in the ATLAS.ti iPad app.

This of course is little different to annotating in other PDF apps (such as Acrobat Reader, GoodReader or iAnnotate), but ATLAS.ti can do so much more than that.

Step 3. Adding codes to collect together your highlighted quotations and notes

Let’s turn to the two “killer app” aspects that ATLAS.ti brings:

  • First: you can add one or more codes in order to collect all these highlighted quotations and their associated notes together.
  • Second: you have the opportunity to transfer the project to the desktop programme and make use of its sophisticated and powerful search options. These far outstrip anything comparable in referencing software.

I now add some new code. I have highlighted the section and made a comment on it. I have then selected some existing codes.  Since this is an article that is part of the literature around mobilities research, I have added the “lit_mobilities” code. It relates to theories of sense making so I have added the “theory_sensemaking” code. It has continuities with my thesis work, which I have commented on, so I add the “thesis_continuities” code. Finally this is the first section of text I’ve come to in my reading that is a very “quotable” section. In the screenshot in Figure 4, I show how I create a new code called “quotable”, which is then attached to this section.  I will subsequently use this code for other sections of text particularly useful for direct quotation.

Figure 4-Creating a new code and adding it to a section of highlighted text.

Figure 4-Creating a new code and adding it to a section of highlighted text.

Note: For detailed instructions on attaching codes and creating new codes please consult pages 19-21 of the ATLAS.ti app manual.

I then continue this process as I read through the rest of this article and several others – highlighting, adding comments and then adding or creating codes to collect these together. (In fact I now do this as an ongoing practice as ATLAS.ti has become my preferred mobile PDF reader). The steps above are a little more involved than what would be with other apps, but the new possibilities that come with the ATLAS.ti app make that extra work so worthwhile in terms of time-saving and text/quote identification.  So, let’s explore a little further to find out why this is the case.

Tablet devices are great for working on the go.  This includes reading and annotating. But writing a thesis, report or referenced work? That’s usually done on a fully-featured computer. One of the challenges with using tablet annotation apps is getting the annotated text back onto the machine you write on, and collecting all that work of note-making together. This is where using the ATLAS.ti iPad app along with its desktop programme version really becomes a useful strategy.

Having highlighted sections of text, added comments and collected these together with codes, you can then simply export the project via DropBox as shown in Figure 5 below.

Figure 5-Exporting a project via cloud storage for use in the ATLAS.ti desktop version.

Figure 5-Exporting a project via cloud storage for use in the ATLAS.ti desktop version.

Step 4. Working with annotated documents on the computer

Having exported via DropBox I can now import the project into ATLAS.ti on my computer (Figure 6), where I’ll be writing and using these quotes to prepare my presentation or report.

Figure 6-Importing the project into ATLAS.ti

Figure 6-Importing the project into ATLAS.ti

I can now continue to work on the desktop using, for example, the powerful Query Tool to start retrieving and organizing the data.  Let’s take a look at how. One of the codes I used was “thesis_continuities”, which I attached as a code to the highlighted sections of text that showed strong continuities with my thesis research in a different area. These are the sorts of things I want to talk about in a job interview, showing how my thesis work has relevance in a new area.  Therefore, my first query will be just to bring together all the sections of text I highlighted and commented as having continuities with my thesis research work. For that I just search for “thesis_continuities”.  Thus, in the Query Tool I add the code “thesis_continuities” as the query operand (Figure 7).

Figure 7-Using the Query Tool with a single code.

Figure 7-Using the Query Tool with a single code as an operand.

I can then output the text that is retrieved. As I want to see not only the highlighted text (the quotation) but also the comments I made (the notes on that comment) the most useful output is going to be “Full Content – Include Comments” (Figure 8).

Figure 8-Outputing the query results.

Figure 8-Outputing the query results.

I can then choose where I want to send this report – either to an editor within ATLAS.ti, save it or print it.  I decide to output this to the editor.

Note: See the chapter on “Generating Output” in the ATLAS.ti manual pages 385-388 for more information and explanation of these options.

The output shown in the editor brings together all the different sections of highlighted text, and my comments on those from all the documents where I’ve made these notes. It also includes details of the documents from which the text and comments are extracted (see Figure 9). This is where the work pays off as these are the sort of search, retrieval and listing that PDF annotation packages or reference management software simply cannot manage.

Figure 9-The output from the Query Tool displayed in the editor.

Figure 9-The output from the Query Tool displayed in the editor.

As Figure 9 shows, the first line for each quotation tells me which document it came from (which shows why file naming is so important!):

P 2: Büscher Urry – 2009 – Mobile Methods and the Empirical – 2:29 [Various objects and mundane te..] (5:2222-5:2600)   (Steven’s iPad)

The next line tells me the codes associated with it :

Codes:  [lit_mobilities] [quotable] [theory_sensemaking] [thesis_continuity]

Any associated memos are shown next – there are none here.

This is followed by the highlighted text (quotation). For a PDF file the line breaks may appear a little unexpectedly, as shown below:

Various objects and mundane

technologies sensuously extend human capacities into and across the world.

There are various assemblages of humans, objects, technologies and scripts that

contingently produce durability and stability of mobility. They reflexively shape

sensory experiences as technologies emerging in the modern world provide various

ways of framing impressions.

And finally I see the comments I made:


This pretty effectively encapsulates key concerns of my thesis expressed as mobilities – well worth working in to thesis and drawing out in interview.

This was a very basic search for just one collecting code. The real power comes when you want to search for combinations of codes for specific purposes (e.g. “quotable” and “thesis_continuity” for finding a quote to use illustrating the broader ideas I collected earlier). At this point we’re starting to really exploit the power of CAQDAS software in a literature review to bring together sections of text based on themes and the relationship of those themes to the purposes of our inquiry.

Where you could take this….

The example and illustrations I’ve used here are fairly limited but I hope they help to get you started in doing literature reviews with the ATLAS.ti app for the iPad. Once you start working following the steps I suggested above, some very interesting possibilities arise for relating “the literature” to “research evidence” and using ATLAS.ti to support that process.

Most research projects engage with “the literature” very early on. For instance, a literature review done in support of the project proposal or for the literature review chapter. This creates an opportunity to start developing a set of structured codes around the topic you are investigating by reading, highlighting, and commenting on sections of the text and developing codes from that process.  These codes relate to prior research in the field and some of the concepts, settings and theories involved. When you begin empirical work you could then apply these literature-derived codes to your data, adding to the existing coding frame.

I hope you’ve found this useful and that it helped you see that the ATLAS.ti tablet app for the iPad can be your  “go-to app for reading research literature”. It really supports a necessary engagement between the literature and the evidence.


Phelps, R., Fisher, K., & Ellis, A. (2007). Organizing and managing your research : a practical guide for postgraduates. London: London : SAGE.

Ragin, C. C. (1994). Constructing social research : the unity and diversity of method. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Pine Forge Press.

Silverman, D. (2010). Doing qualitative research. (3rd ed.). London: Sage Publications Ltd.

About the Author

steve_wrightSteve Wright is a PhD Candidate on the Doctoral Programme in E-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning< He has used ATLAS.ti to support a focused ethnography on the use of iPhones in craft brewing (Wright, Short and Parchoma, 2013; Wright & Parchoma, 2014) and in his thesis project. His thesis combined ethnomethodological approaches from conversation analysis (CA) with actor-network theory (ANT) in a sensory ethnographic study of the certification, online examination (Wright, 2014) and sensory examination of amateur beer judges. In this project he developed novel methods for synchronous recording, preconstruction and analysis of writing practices such as completing assessment forms with their surrounding conversation (see Laurier (submitted) for further details). The theoretical approaches from ANT required an engagement with the agency of ATLAS.ti in the investigation and developing approaches for supporting CA methods. He has a particular interest in the possibilities and applications of CAQDAS software for approaches that diverge from and challenge those that are derived from grounded theory.



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