Best Practice

On conducting a literature review with ATLAS.ti

Learn about your Literature Review with ATLAS.ti here. Read about the process of reading the article, highlighting and making comments for your completing your review
Elizabeth Pope
Certified Senior Trainer
  1. Introduction
  2. My Research and Background
  3. The Literature Review Process
  4. Primary Documents Manager
  5. Coding based on highlighted portions of text
  6. The Codebook
  7. Linking codes using the code manager
  8. Semantic network
  9. Memo function
  10. Running code co-occurrence tables for checking overlapping themes
  11. Final Thoughts


As a doctoral student at The University of Georgia (UGA), I have the opportunity to learn from, and work with internationally known and highly skilled qualitative researchers. One of these scholars is Dr. Trena Paulus who’s expertise with digital technologies and qualitative research is renowned. In the fall of 2014 I took QUAL 8410, “Designing Qualitative Research,” with Dr. Paulus and was introduced to ATLAS.ti for the first time. As I was planning to begin my own research with my literature review the next spring I was immediately attracted to the program and the thoughts of carrying out a paperless literature review. In the spring of 2015 I met with Dr. Paulus and she taught me the basics of ATLAS.ti so I could begin my literature review with the program.

My Research and Background

At this point, I would like to take a moment to mention my research interests and educational background as this will provide a clearer picture of my experiences with ATLAS.ti. Currently I am a fourth year doctoral candidate at UGA in the department of Lifelong Education, Administration, and Policy working on a degree in Adult Education and a graduate certificate in Interdisciplinary Qualitative Studies. I have a BA in Religion and graduated with an MA in Religion with a specialization in Islam in 2009. Both of my previous degrees are from UGA. As I worked on my MA I was a Teaching Assistant in the department of Religion teaching introductory religion classes and after graduating I worked as an instructor at UGA and later at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC).

In 2013 I decided to come back for my Ph.D. in Adult Education and since returning to school have participated in several research projects with professors in the qualitative research department. In the summer of 2016 I earned my certification as a professional trainer in ATLAS.ti and worked as a TA for two qualitative research courses – one on Action Research and another on using digital technologies in qualitative research. My own research interests are focused in transformative learning and interfaith dialogue. Specifically, my dissertation is a qualitative case study working with a grassroots dialogue organization of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim adults who, since 2001, have been participating in interfaith dialogue every four to six weeks. In addition to observations of these dialogue sessions, I am performing interviews with participants, observing steering committee meetings, holding focus groups with facilitators, and examining documents the group produces.

The objective of my literature review was to gather as much conceptual and empirical literature on interfaith dialogue as possible. Interfaith dialogue is a little examined topic in Adult Education and to complete my literature review I examined scholarship in a wide variety of fields such as interfaith studies, adult education, religion, theology, communication studies, and more. Because I learned ATLAS.ti quickly and proficiently, I completed a 95% paperless literature review – everything except for the books I used was an electronic resource. I found that there has been much more conceptual literature published on interfaith dialogue than empirical scholarship. Fortunately, this means that my study dissertation has the potential to contribute in many fields – particularly the field of adult education and in the topic of transformative learning theory.

The Literature Review Process

I performed an inductive thematic analysis of scholarship on the topics of interfaith dialogue, transformative learning – particularly in reference to interfaith or intercultural interactions and communications, adult learning – and Buber’s dialogue theory (the other theory in my dissertation’s conceptual framework). Over the course of a year and a half I read and analyzed these articles in ATLAS.ti to develop a working literature review, which is still a work in progress as I aim to stay up on current scholarship. As examples of my findings, I learned that conceptual literature regarding experiences in interfaith dialogue primarily talk about things such as challenges for dialogue, desired goals and outcomes of interfaith dialogue, the importance of having clear ground rules and expectations for dialogue, and possible effects of interfaith dialogue on participants. For the empirical literature regarding dialogue I found that many studies discuss how participants learn about themselves and others in dialogue, the potential for perspective transformation, and what factors impact the outcomes of interfaith dialogue.

Primary Documents Manager

I analyzed over 70 peer-reviewed journal articles using ATLAS.ti. My process was to read the article, highlight, and make comments using Adobe Acrobat Reader. I would then import the document into ATLAS.ti as a Primary Document. Using the Primary Documents Manager, I organized my primary documents into family depending on their topic (ex. empirical literature on interfaith dialogue, conceptual literature on interfaith dialogue, literature on transformative learning theory, literature on Buber’s dialogue theory, and literature on adult learning). I used the comment field for each primary document to manage the citation and abstract for the journal article within the project.

Figure 1: Primary Documents Manager

Coding based on highlighted portions of text

I used the highlighted portions of the document as indicators of pertinent content and sections of the article that may need to be coded. The comments I made in Adobe became comments on particular codes and sometimes linked or free memos.

Figure 2: Coding based on highlighted portions of text

The Codebook

After creating a code, I immediately defined it in order to maintain consistency in my coding. I also dated my code definitions. This dating system became invaluable to me. It helped me keep a dated record of my thinking. In addition to dating my code definitions, I also kept a record of dates whenever I made changes or edits to the project. I dated and kept track of my memos in a similar way.

Figure 3: The Codebook

Linking codes using the code manager

I had an extensive hierarchy of codes and categories based off my findings. I organized my codes into families (ex. the practice of interfaith dialogue, empirical findings, transformative learning, etc) and color coded each family. The colors served as indicators of the code families when I was looking over primary documents and the colors matched the highlighting and tabs I used to mark relevant information in any printed books I used for the literature review. As my analysis went on, I discovered connections between my codes and linked many of them together using the code manager. I used the naming of my codes to keep track of my categories (ex. CHALLENGES: Clear Goals and Ground Rules; or PURPOSE: Conflict Resolution). In this way many of my categories then became the major content areas I discussed when writing my literature review.

Figure 4: Linking codes using the code manager

Semantic network

After establishing these connections, I created semantic networks to graphically show the relationships between my codes. Semantic networks represent connecting, contrasting, or even nested aspects of a topic and these links became clearer as my analysis continued.

Figure 5: Sample semantic network

Memo function

I separated conceptual literature from empirical literature when writing my report. The memo function was my primary tool for managing my preliminary analysis. As with my codes, I kept a dated record of my memos as well as when I added to or edited them.

Figure 6: Utilizing the memo function

Running code co-occurrence tables for checking overlapping themes

I ran code co-occurrence tables to see where my codes for empirical literature overlapped and help cement my themes. When I had created my themes by looking across my categories and codes for the empirical literature, I ran outputs of the specific codes that were in each theme to bring up evidence to be included in my report. The links I made in the code manager and network view helped reveal the relationships between codes and categories within each of my themes.

Figure 7: Running an output before writing the report

Final Thoughts

I cannot imagine writing a literature review without using any sort of QDAS. Since I worked on this project for over a year (and used one of my earlier HUs to help me with my comprehensive exams) I do not believe I would have been able to be as organized or as easily keep track of my thoughts and developing analysis if I had not used ATLAS.ti. In the future, if I have students or anyone training to do qualitative research I will strongly recommend that they learn to use some sort of QDA while ATLAS.ti is my software of choice. Students and professionals learning to, and doing, qualitative research without some sort of QDAS are missing an incredibly important, efficient, and serviceable tool that actually has the ability to enhance their analysis and research skills. In the age of technology, using QDAS is the most efficient and logical way to do qualitative research for me.