Ethical Issues Underlying Instructional Case Writing and Research: Exploring the Dark Side of the Craft

Ethical Issues Underlying Instructional Case Writing and Research: Exploring the Dark Side of the Craft

Adva Rachel Dinur (Long Island University, USA) and Herbert Sherman (Long Island University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8562-8.ch003


There appear two chapters in this textbook that explore the ethical issues surrounding instructional case writing, an area rarely discussed even in case journals. In this chapter, Section 1, “Conducting Research,” five issues (comprehensiveness, multiple realities, researcher bias, high cost, and reporting without influence) surrounding the primary data gathering process are described while Section 2, “Writing Cases,” includes a moral discourse on case author objectivity, authenticity, and co-authorship with students.
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Case research as a specific qualitative research method involves the use of secondary and primary data in order to describe social phenomena which involve meaning, practices, episodes, encounters, roles, relationships, groups, and organizations (Babbie, 1992). More specifically, case research for instructional purposes “represents a particular story telling … [which] allows students to actively participate in the learning process …” (Naumes & Naumes, 2013, p.4) by linking theory to practice. Cause and effect linkages are explored in detail through the accompanying instructional manual which describes not only the content of the case but further provides pedagogical methodologies for elucidating student learning (Armandi, Sherman & Vega, 2004).

This chapter explores the underlying ethical issues surrounding the art and craft of case writing for teaching purposes; an area rarely discussed even in instructional case journals. Instructional case research poses ethical nuances that first and foremost are associated with any field research and are typically associated with the first step in any research project - data gathering: direct observation, interviews, and subjects as active participants (phenomenological research). There are both legal and ethical issues underlying the data gathering process (i.e. obtaining permission from the subjects/firms being analyzed, dealing with Institutional Review Boards, reporting of illegally found activities), which will be discussed as well as issues surrounding protecting the anonymity of subjects.

Case writers have also debated the educational value of hypothetical and purely secondary research cases and the core learning derived from concocted case problems. The legal field abounds with “what if” (word problems) and library research cases yet business case journals for the most part require real life cases (not facsimiles) which include primary data sources. Yet composite cases (cases where data has been combined from differing research streams about the same organization i.e. a BusinessWeek article coupled with live interviews with key personnel) are deemed not only acceptable but quite desirable by those same journals.

The second step in the case writing process, the actual construction of the case story, has moral underpinnings which include reporting the facts of the case and ensuring their objectivity (i.e. triangulating primary and secondary data; addressing multiple truths), and being aware of the assumptions and sentiments of the writers, characters and the target audience of the case so as to properly capture the social, behavioral and cultural distinctions that may mislead case readers (Lussier & Sherman, 2013).

Another question of ethics revolves around the completeness of the case. How much data should the case writer include in the case itself? Should the case writer provide the student with enough information to actually solve the case or should the case writer purposely leave out some critical enough information so that the student realizes he/she needs to do some additional research in order to provide a cogent answer to the case problem? Or, should the case writer purposely include so much spurious information as to mire the case in detail?

Case writing also includes moral questions concerning the “leeway” case writers may have concerning the reporting of the story. For example, can a case writer create dialogue that was not observed but was reported or intimated by parties present at the conversation or parties receiving this information second hand? Or can a case writer slightly alter the story line so as to heighten the drama surrounding the case decision point? Many case writers have had to disguise their cases (name of firm, key personnel, financial data) in order to receive permission from a firm to use primary data; does disguising the case, from an ethical perspective, impact the value of the case? How important is having the true name of the firm and its key players in the learning process? (For example, does a student learn more about a “real” firm that they can research versus a disguised firm which they cannot?)

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