How to find your theme with a literature review matrix

literature review theme from a literature review matrixThe literature review matrix is an incredibly useful tool. Again I’m indebted to my good friend Jenn (mastermind behind My Studious Life, and one of the very talented writers behind the #AcWri twitter group) for putting me onto the idea. One of the reasons for this post is a message from Kelsey (@Minnie_488) on Twitter. This just goes to show that it’s worth asking me stuff there – you never know, you might get a blog post and a video out of it ;).

What is a literature review matrix

Well it’s essentially a table, you put your themes in the first column and then you put journal titles as the headings for all of the other columns. You then go through all the journal articles you have and write in the relevant cells, how they correspond to a particular theme. I use Powerpoint to do my matrices, I just find it aesthetically pleasing and easy to increase the size to the table. There are probably many other ways to do it so let me know in the comments :)

It’s really that simple all you need are a few themes to get going. It should be easy to find these from reading a few papers or by asking your supervisor.

But if you need themes to get started how does it help you to find themes?

Well, basically at the very start the themes you choose have to be very fluid and open to change. The process of reading through articles and trying to fit information into your themes will help you find out if you need to change. You might find a chunk of information in an article that doesn’t fit into any particular theme you have. Chances are then you need to make a new theme, or you need to change the theme structure slightly to accomodate new information.

It’s very powerful

As a planning aid this is very powerful indeed. This is because it forces you to take information from the articles as you read it and put it into the very themes you will write about at a very early stage. Not only that, you are forced to address how each article might fit into every theme you have – you are forced to think! This means that you can find out if each article only fits into one theme or in reality spans several different themes. Knowing this at the start of your writing will dramatically help with the flow and the clarity of your text because you will know which references are discrete and which reference will be constantly referred to.

So please give it a try and let me know what you think in the comment below.


  1. Jacinta M says

    Great post! Nice idea to use Powerpoint.. excel files quickly become boring and cumbersome to maintain! You could even be useful to do such a matrix for software which we need to use in our research.. utilities and tests in rows and software in columns, or something similar! Thanks for the tips!

  2. says

    Thank you so much, Ben. It’s a great honor to have you mentioned me here. I didn’t realize my literature review matrix method has made an impact on you too. I like your idea of using PowerPoint, much cooler than my Word document. I should try that next.

    I totally agree about finding the themes. Most people would think it’s difficult to find them (at first) but once they started using this matrix, things will be clearer and eventually they will find the themes that they never thought of before. This method works so well for me that I’m no longer afraid of doing LR anymore. I can easily start any LR any time and I’m so glad to have found such method to help me.

    This is an awesome post. I hope many can benefit from your sharing :)

    • says

      Thanks Jenn. I just find Powerpoint easier to mangage, you know, re-sizing and all that.

      You’re not afraid of the LR anymore! That’s fantastic! I’d say this step alone will make you a much better writer because you can focus your energy on being creative instead of scared.

      Looking forward to hearing about your new studious adventures :)

  3. DrJ says

    have you thought about using Nvivo? It has this matrix function, and endless other tools to help with the lit review :)

    • says

      Actually I have been thinking about it recently. A few different people have mentioned it to me. I need to do some fact finding I think :) How do you use it?

  4. says

    I don’t think this would work for social science. For us, the purpose of the literature review is to show the state of knowledge, usually by grouping like works together, then showing the sides and gaps in the debates. It’s rare to split one author or work into several themes to discuss intensely.

    • says

      Maybe the video was a bit misleading. It’s not that you have to discuss everything you write in the literature review matrix, but the process really helps you to understand the individual articles so you know exactly what to write about. You understand exactly what each article contributes to a theme and how they interact with one another. The matrix is not an exact plan of what you should write, but a way of seeing very clearly where the important comparisons, contrasts and discussions are to be made. I’m interested to know, as a social scientist, how do you go about finding your literature review themes and planning your literature review? I’m intrigued because I know quite a few social scientist who use this method very effectively.

    • says

      Hi Jennifer,

      I thought to chip in since I’ve experienced with the matrix. It should work regardless of what field you are researching. The matrix is supposed to help you identify critical themes or criteria that you want to look at while reading each article. What you put in the matrix is all up to you and depend on what you want to find out.

      Personally, I have multiple matrices on different themes or topics and I used these matrices to guide me in writing my literature review. Matrices are very useful especially after a few months and you need to redo certain part of your literature review. At least you have some notes to refer to, very quickly, rather than reread many articles again. This is my true experience. Hope it helps somehow. All the best!

  5. Kirralie says

    I am trialling Dedoose software – as Nvivo wouldn’t run nicely on my mac – but it is similar and I find that it helps work through data and pull out the themes… which I then refine as I go. It is all rather circular because it will highlight something that needs to go into my literature review so I go back and adjust my list… I don’t put it into a formal matrix but I use a similar system of lists with headings and subheadings. But I like tables so I might give this a go – Thanks

    • says

      I’ve never heard of Dedoose so I’ll check it out thanks! It sounds like you’ve got a good system for finding themes. While there are many different ways of doing things, there is a lot to be said for choosing the one that works for you.


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