Working with literature reviews: Getting a bird’s eye view with Excel

Excel is neither very ‘mac’ nor a traditional tool for literature reviews, but I’ve decided to create a brief post on how I use it to get a quick glance of a large body of literature.

First, I create an excel document with a name that reflects a thematic area. The choice of theme reflects a thematic area that I want to review.

Second, I create a set of columns, with categories such as name of author, name of publication, year of publication, name of journal, focus of article, research question(s), method, theory and key concepts, country where the research has been conducted, key findings, relevance for my ongoing projects, and so on.

Third, I ‘fix’ the columns containing the name of author, year and title of publication, so that this information will always stay on the left even if I scroll to the far right of the document.

Then, I start filling in the relevant information.

I also add different tabs for different kind of articles, for example, a tab for empirical articles, one for theoretical articles, and one for review articles.

The end result looks something like this:

Screen shot of an excel review document

So, what are the advantages of working in this way?

  • It helps me to get a quick overview over a large thematic body of literature.
  • It helps me to quickly compare research questions, methodological approaches or key findings across a large number of articles.
  • I can easily sort the information in different ways; for example, I can arrange them according to name of journal if I’m targeting a particular journal for my next article, I can arrange them by year of publication to get a quick glance of how research in a particular area has advanced over the past couple of decades, or I can arrange them by country if I’m interested in a particular geographical area.

I’ve been exploring OmniOutliner recently as an alternative to Excel. While I think OmniOutliner is a great tool (and this will be the subject of a future post), I’m sticking with Excel for now for this purpose – primarily because keeping columns fixed isn’t possible in OmniOutliner (as far as I know, at least), and because sorting is a bit easier in Excel.

For those interested in the excel spreadsheet, a template can be found here:


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12 Responses to Working with literature reviews: Getting a bird’s eye view with Excel

  1. Vignesh Raja says:

    Hi, nice information on organizing litrature review. Can you please mail me(vrpcdacgmailcom) the excel sheet that you show on the screenshot?

  2. This is very helpful. I am just starting out and wonder if you could send me your excel sheet, too? Much appreciated!

  3. Hi thanks for this helpful article. I wonder if you could send me the excel sheet shahifol @ .uk ..Thank you!

  4. Hi, please send me the excel sheet as well….its

  5. Hi there. Thanks for your article. Could you please send me the excel spreadsheet too? michaelbutchard at
    Thanks very much.

  6. Pingback: Framing the study for a literature review | Applying inspiration

  7. s moody says:

    Thank you so much for the info. Can you please email me the excel spreadsheet
    Thanks very much

  8. Nancy Fraleigh says:

    The reason we’re all asking for the spreadsheet is because your link doesn’t work. Can you send it to me too?

    • macademise says:

      Thanks, Nancy, I hadn’t realised the link was broken. I’ve provided a link to my dropbox folder above, you should be able to download it from there.

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