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Studying case studies.

The case study method of teaching predates by decades newer pedagogical initiatives such as the flipped classroom, spaced learning, digital curricula, distance education, and engagement. Yet it seems very modern, as it moves the emphasis away from formal lecture toward classroom discussion. For business students at both the undergraduate and graduate level, case studies are a staple.

Note the difference between case study and Case Study. A case study can also be described as a case history, a description of best practices, a benchmarking exercise, or a narrative about a particular incident. They are not necessarily about business. Case studies can be about technology, psychology, anthropology, criminal justice, and even, on a less academic plane, fixing your car or parenting. A search on Amazon for "case study" yields more than 82,000 books. A few of those are about how to write, analyze, and use case studies in the classroom and one is a fiction title. Most are actual case studies.

Some case studies use real-life examples, particularly if written in the first person. They use real companies and real people when writing about the event, situation, or incident. Others are fictionalized, presenting an amalgamation of experiences from multiple companies, many situations, and various people. The scope note in the ABI/INFORM Thesaurus for case studies says, "Used to identify articles that focus in-depth on a single company or organization." The LexisNexis scope note for the same subject term is more general: "CASE STUDIES targets in-depth examination of a single instance, individual or event."


Journal articles frequently include a narrative to illustrate the point being made. Searching in a business database will automatically limit your search results to business-related case studies included in articles. Both ProQuest and EBSCO make good use of controlled vocabulary in their business databases. ABI/INFORM categorizes more than 235,000 articles as case studies; Business Source Premier only 18,109. However, a free text search on Business Source Premier for "case studies" retrieves 95,746 articles, so if the controlled vocabulary term doesn't deliver what you want, switch to a full-text search.

Having a designated index term isn't always the case. Neither the Gale Business Insights databases nor Factiva has a subject term for the case study concept. Looking at results from a free text search for "case study" OR "case studies" doesn't reveal any obvious substitute term, so you have to hope the author included the term in the body of the text. Many authors don't. The lack of the explicit term, even when the concept exists, is precisely why database producers should add value by creating and applying thesauri. When they don't, information that is relevant to the search is not findable.


The difference between a case study and a Case Study can be summed up in one word: Harvard. The Harvard Business School is the foremost proponent of teaching by the case method. The idea is to present students with a situation, grounded in reality, as a springboard to discussion. As with real life, Case Studies reflect the realities of managerial decision making. The cases don't give students complete information: Students have to decide on a course of action with limited time, and goals are both unclear and conflicting.

Harvard maintains a web presence to support the case method of teaching ( Its online Teaching Seminars last 4 weeks. It has a Case Startup Kit, which recommends up to 10 cases, with Teaching Notes, for the first-time teacher. The site also supports The Teaching Post Forum, but it seems largely inactive.

University business professors who want to assign Harvard Case Studies to students in their classes can either buy a license or require students to buy the case (most cases cost $8.95, although a few are more expensive but still under $20). You can find a list of cases for sale at the website ( University libraries are bypassed in both scenarios and are unable to purchase case studies, put them on reserve, or borrow them through interlibrary loan. For the license option, professors must register. Only faculty at degree-granting institutions are eligible.

Harvard also publishes shorter Case Studies in Harvard Business Review. Typical is this title from the June 2016 issue: "Case Study: Which Customers Should This Restaurant Listen To?" The full text is available in EBSCO's Business Source Premier, which has an exclusive license for the full text of the magazine, and, according to the database, the article contains 3,358 words. It is based on the longer Harvard Case Study "Raju Omlet: Expanding in the United Arab Emirates," which is available at for $8.95. Access expires 6 months after the purchase.


Before leaping to the conclusion that Case Studies from the magazine can be used in class, consider this license notification from Harvard that appears at the end of the full-text record:
   Harvard Business Review Notice of Use Restrictions,
   May 2009

     Harvard Business Review and Harvard Business
   Publishing Newsletter content on EBSCOhost
   is licensed for the private individual use of
   authorized EBSCOhost users. It is not intended
   for use as assigned course material in academic
   institutions nor as corporate learning or training
   materials in businesses. Academic licensees may
   not use this content in electronic reserves, electronic
   course packs, persistent linking from syllabi
   or by any other means of incorporating the
   content into course resources. Business licensees
   may not host this content on learning management
   systems or use persistent linking or other
   means to incorporate the content into learning
   management systems. Harvard Business Publishing
   will be pleased to grant permission to
   make this content available through such means.
   For rates and permission, contact permissions@

Suppose you're the student assigned the Raju Omlet case and you've shelled out the money for the case, but you'd like a bit more knowledge beyond what your professor has covered in class. You could search the library databases to gain additional insights, although some professors specifically tell you not to, or you could do what most students do--search Google. You'll discover an opportunity to buy a solution from (and hope your professor hasn't done the same thing and can identify your solution as not exactly original). Course Hero ( claims it can answer the study questions posed by the case, but you need to register. You can find one student's answers about Raju Omlet in a presentation at emaze ( and, although this particular case isn't there, other case analyses are on SlideShare (


In a library-friendly gesture, SAGE Publications announced its entry into the business case study world in 2014. SAGE Business Cases actually arrived 2 years later. Its business model is completely different from Harvard's and vastly more library-friendly. SAGE Business Cases ( is a database designed to be purchased by libraries. It currently contains about 1,000 cases on a wide range of topics, including general business and management, accounting, ethics, economics, entrepreneurship, finance, human resources, information and knowledge management, international business, leadership, marketing, operations management, organization studies, research methods, and strategy. By 2018, SAGE anticipates having 2,500 cases online.

The roster of contributors to SAGE Business Cases is an international one. It includes Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge (U.K.); Graziadio School of Business and Management (U.S); The Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (India); Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (U.S.); Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management (China); Wits Business School, University of Witwatersrand (South Africa); and Yale School of Management, Yale University (U.S.). Additionally, cases provided by the Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and the Society for Human Resource Management take cases beyond the traditional business school. You can readily tell the source of the case because each is accompanied by the source's logo.

SAGE also commissions case studies. These studies are peer reviewed before being added to the database and are branded with the SAGE Publishing logo. Some are repurposed from earlier iterations. The dates included with the case make the original publication date and the newer, SAGE publication date explicit.

An author tab leads you to a brief biography, which explains why an individual is qualified to write the Case Study. I found this reassuring, as the original calls for Case Study authors, posted to its Management INK blog (, intimated that SAGE would consider "lively, interesting cases that bring business concepts and problems to life" authored not only by professors but also by post-docs and doctoral students.


SAGE Business Cases resides on the SAGE Knowledge platform, along with other SAGE products, such as SAGE Business Researcher and SAGE Business Stats, to which a library might already subscribe. This allows for cross-searching (not that it will completely preclude students from turning to Google).

Cases are marked by level: Basic, Intermediate, or Complex. Length is also indicated, and a Type field indicates Direct (the information came directly from the entity under discussion), Indirect (it came from published information), or Experience (it came from general experience but uses disguised details). Instructors can access teaching notes for some, but not all, of the cases. You can limit your search to cases that have these notes. Each Case Study is assigned a DOI, something other Case Study producers don't do.

Searches can be limited by level, length, keywords, and date. Use advanced search to limit to an organization or industry. Results can be sorted by relevance, title, or original publication date. Once you've found a case you like, SAGE does a readers advisory action and puts suggested cases on the same subject to the right of the selected case.


Harvard does not actually have a lock on creating business cases. Other business schools also participate in this class of instruction. This can become a bit convoluted as some universities both publish their own Case Studies and contribute them to Harvard or another aggregator. Ivey Publishing, part of the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in Ontario, Canada, has published more than 8,000 Case Studies ( Darden Business Publishing, at the University of Virginia, offers free inspection copies ( Stanford Graduate School of Business (gsbapps.stan distributes its Case Studies through Harvard and The Case Centre. The University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business has only 300 cases in its WDI Publishing (formerly Global Lens) collection, but the cases are very targeted to international business. They cost only $3.95 apiece (

The Case Centre ( is a U.K.-based organization that contains a treasure trove of information about the case method from a European perspective. Its list of free cases is a boon for those institutions with strapped budgets. Among them are cases that focus on responsible management from Copenhagen Business School, Chilean entrepreneurship cases from Babson College, 18 cases on technology entrepreneurship developed by the directorate General Enterprise and Industry of the European Commission, and entrepreneurial Case Studies from the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.


As librarians consider their role in case method pedagogy, one thing is clear. If their business school faculty are wedded to Harvard Case Studies, simply subscribing to the SAGE product or recommending open access sources is not enough. It's a matter of changing the minds of the teachers. Librarians must persuasively present a case to the faculty that will convince them to begin using alternatives to Harvard. How that proposition is presented will differ by school and depend upon the "hot buttons" for each faculty.

Melissa Korn and Lindsay Gellman, in a Dow Jones Newswire/Wall Street Journal story published Feb. 4, 2015, suggested that the case method, as it exists at Harvard, is increasingly irrelevant for preparing students for jobs in today's tech industry ("Should Harvard Business School Hit Refresh?" Looking at the date distribution graph for the ABI/INFORM search on the su(case studies) search indicates that the topic hit its high point in the decade of 1990-2000 and has been steadily decreasing since then.

If the case method is, in fact, falling out of favor, I'm guessing we won't see a return to the "talking head" lecture. More likely is engagement with business students through video simulations of situations requiring management decisions, technical expertise, critical thinking, sense-making skills, and priority-setting abilities. How about makerspaces and gaming entering the classroom (or its virtual equivalent)? If any or all of these gain the acceptance of business schools, librarians need to evaluate available resources and ensure that their collections, databases, e-resources, and professional expertise are included in the curricula.

Another role for the information professional is advice on how to write Case Studies. If authorship of Case Studies becomes a piece of the altmetrics pie, classes in how to write them will become popular. No one is better positioned to teach these classes than librarians.

Marydee Ojala

Editor-in-Chief, Online Searcher

Marydee Ojala ( is editor-in-chief of Online Searcher.
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Author:Ojala, Marydee
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Date:Jul 1, 2016
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