Keyword search vs Abstract search…

The purpose of placing keywords in an abstract is to allow a search engine or another researcher to easily identify main topics in your research. For additional thoughts, see link and link.

As I continue digging through doctoral studies to identify patterns of concern or mistakes, I began reviewing studies from a University that uses a case study method for many students. I’ve identified problems in case studies here and here. I wanted to quickly see how many times the phrase “case study” appeared as a keyword or phrase. Using the R library tidyverse, and two commands (str_detect and table), I found only 4 instances in the keywords:

str_detect(selected_university$keywords, "case study") %>% table()
  233     4 

However, when I searched for the same string in the Abstract, I found 215 instances.

str_detect(selected_university$abstract, "case study") %>% table()
   22   215 

This tells me that a specific research design is deemed not important enough to place as a keyword phrase. No problem.

Student Note: Don’t rely on keywords for finding similar types of research designs.

It also tells me that 90% of this University’s DBA graduates in 2019 used the same research design. Did I hear somebody say formulaic?

In writing about formulaic papers in organizational research, Alvesson and Gabriel wrote –

Formulaic papers are the products of a sequence of interrelated codified and standardized practices that involve formulaic research, a formulaic editorial process, formulaic reviewing, and more generally, formulaic mind-sets, that is, formulaic ways of thinking about what constitutes scholarship. Reliance on a formula is in itself not detrimental to quality, especially if the formula has yielded good results in the past. As we shall see presently, however, slavish adherence to formula renders researchers oblivious to potentially interesting possibilities that exist outside the formula,
eliminating the scope for serendipity and accidental discovery that have long been crucial factors in
scientific discovery and technological innovations

Alvesson & Gabriel, 2013, p. 247 (emphasis added)

I don’t have a problem with writing templates or standardized statistical approaches, but when 90% of a University’s doctoral studies relate to case study methodology, and issues have been identified in research from that University relating to the framing and execution of the case study method, what does that say about the quality of the formula?


Alvesson, M., & Gabriel, Y. (2013). Beyond formulaic research: In praise of greater diversity in organizational research and publications. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 12(2), 245-263.

When the first interview question equals the research question, why ask for more information?

Using a multiple-case study approach (N = 3), Uhuegbulem (2019) explored strategies for retiring oil and gas assets in Canada. The emerging scholar did not describe the three organizations under study. Instead, one ‘business leader’ of selected organizations was used as a proxy. The term business leader is not described; there is no evidence this leader was the President, Owner, or Managing Partner of the organization. There is also no evidence of a review of organizational documents substantiating how retired oil and gas assets are retired, tracked, and management.

What intrigued me was the research question –

What strategies do asset managers in small- and medium-sized O&G companies use to manage retired O&G assets effectively to increase organizational sustainability?

Uhuegbulem, 2019, p. 5

I wondered how the emerging scholar was going to determine how retired O&G asset management would lead to organizational sustainability or anything else, which is a cause-and-effect issue. I guess the first item of the interview guide would answer my question on how the emerging scholar would answer the research question –

What strategies do you (the participant) use to track, monitor, and manage retired O&G assets effectively?

Uhuegbulem, 2019, p. 5 & Appendix B (emphasis added)

The emerging scholar wasn’t going to do it…the participant would do it.

The Easy Button - Creations - Forum


Uhuegbulem, I. (2019). Strategies for oil and gas asset retirement sustainability in Alberta, Canada (Doctoral dissertation). ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection. (13864356)

Does usage = success in marketing?

I stumbled across Davis (2020) because the title intrigued me. There are many different types of small businesses, and I wondered how the student was going to assess success in a qualitative, multiple-case study approach. Skipping to the interview guide, I see the problem. The novice researcher is having the participants answer the research question (my comments are in blue) –

  • What are your primary marketing strategies that have helped you grow and sustain your business beyond the first 5 years of operation? First, the novice researcher appears to want the participant to do researcher’s job. Why not start with “What types of marketing strategies to do you utilize?” From there, a researcher can explore how much is spent, the components of the strategy, the timing of the expenditure, how results are measured, etc. Second, shouldn’t the researcher look at all marketing strategies used, not just the ones that “helped them grow?” That’s the purpose of a multiple case study; to compare how different units (companies, in this case) operate?
  • What strategies were most effective toward your marketing efforts? I would think the novice researcher would do this. What is the role of the researcher in this study then?
  • How did you address the key barriers you encounter when implementing marketing strategies? The researcher “primed” the participants to discuss obstacles without learning if they had any. Why do I say that? Because this interview guide was created a priori. I could see discussing obstacles, such as lack of funds, knowledge or experience, in the context of a discussion about marketing; however, how could one see into the future to “know” a barrier was encountered. Student Note: Know your research method and design before you start your data collection.
  • How did the business skills you possess facilitate the effective implementation of the successful marketing strategies? Again, this would be researcher’s job to answer this question once the question of effectiveness was examined. For example, if a business owner thinks Strategy X is effective, but upon investigation and analysis of data it is learned that Strategy X is not more effective than Strategy Y and Z, then perhaps a business owner’s knowledge of marketing or the measurement should be included.

According to the novice researcher, four themes ’emerged’. Below are the themes and anecdotal quotes cited in the study. Again, my comments are in blue

  • Social media
    • “A majority of business owners use social media as part of their branding and marketing strategy” (p. 66). So…if a majority of businesses use something, it must be effective, right?
    • P3 states “I find that I get the greatest type of traction with Intragram” What does traction mean? What information does the participant use to assess traction? How does the participant measure effectiveness with Instagram? Do the number of hits or likes on a web site translate to an increase in foot traffic, purchases, or sales? Where’s the data to support a conclusion that social media is effective? The novice researcher states this theme aligns with the work of He et al (2017), another QUAL study, but based on the supporting information its pure speculation.
  • Collaborations
    • P1 described their relationship with a local humane society (see Incentive Marketing below).
    • P3 described how they leave their business cards with local businesses. I wouldn’t call that a partnership. But based on these two items, the novice researcher made this conclusion: “Small business owners who develop partnerships with other small business owners in their community are an effective marketing strategy in spreading brand awareness” (p. 71). Studies examining the antecedents of brand awareness have found that organizational inducements via the marketing mix, marketing inducements (e.g., word of mouth advertising, promotion), and consumer experiences have statistically significant effects. These concepts were not covered by the novice researcher in the review of the literature. In fact, the term “brand awareness” was used only once in the study.
  • Incentive marketing
    • P1 states “So every new adopter at the local human society receives a $10 gift certificate to my store, and I’d donate that gift certificate. That was also one of the main strategies I used.” How does one know if a strategy is successful until it’s examined and measured?
    • P3 stated that “promotions, giveaways, and asking to tag three or more friends is very, very effective.” Not effective, but very, very effective(!). Since P3 probably doesn’t have a terminal degree in marketing, I would think someone exploring marketing in a terminal degree program, like this novice researcher, would dig deeper and ask questions about how effectiveness was measured. How long does the effect last? Is a ‘pulsing’ strategy used so as not to waste promotional funds when an effect is still active? I guess we’ll never know.
  • Word-of-Mouth
    • P3 stated that “word of mouth was being leveraged better than the digital boards.” Here was an opportunity to explore with the business owner the depth of their word of mouth strategy, and validate the effect with data found in the corporate records (e.g., do they track referrals in their sales/accounting system?).

Using the novice researcher’s own words, these four themes were “primary strategies used by participants that play a key role in enhancing their marketing strategies for their business” (p. 66), and “the results of the study provided marketing strategies that small business owners can use to help sustain their businesses beyond 5 years” (p. 75). Perhaps the title of the study should have been: Research Strategies used by Four Small Business Owners in the Midwestern United States. But, who would read a study, let alone award a terminal degree, for a simple list.

A multiple case study research design was proposed, but not executed correctly. No information was provided about each business (e.g., products or services sold, revenue, date of origin), nor how much is spent on marketing by type of strategy (either by absolute $ or as a % of revenue). The interview guide was poorly developed. As a result, the novice researcher didn’t explore marketing strategies that were successful for each business in the case; she simply asked each business owner a series of questions about marketing activities they performed. This is another example of a non-case, case study.

I can’t believe the committee would have let this study go through, so I examined the terminal degree of each member. I’ll let you decide if this University (my alma mater) or committee did the student a disservice:

  • Chairperson: Terminal degree in organizational leadership
  • Committee member: Terminal degree in education
  • Committee member: Terminal degree in management

With nobody on the committee with a marketing degree, the faculty were probably doing the best they can and relying on the novice researcher to be an expert in the discipline. The novice researcher may be an expert in marketing, but did not demonstrate that expertise, nor how to perform a multiple case study research design, in this study. Note to Students: The results of this study should be viewed with caution, it not ignored in their entirety.


Davis, J. (2020). Successful marketing strategies for small business sustainability (Doctoral dissertation). ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection. (28086062)

He, W., Wang, F. K., Chen, Y., & Zha, S. (2017). An exploratory investigation of social media adoption by small businesses. Information Technology and Management, 18(2), 149-160. An exploratory investigation of social media adoption by small businesse

N = 2 in a non-case study Case Study

A student recently referenced a dissertation that focused on strategies that could be used to promote a sustainable business beyond 5 years (Johnson-Hilliard, 2015). What struck my interest was the size of sample: 2!!! I get it. In qualitative research, it’s not about the number of participants per se but the depth data collection and analysis. As I read on, the student frames the study as a multiple case study. In a multiple case study, an N = 2 could be appropriate where two businesses are compared and contrasted. However, upon further reading, the novice researcher conducted semi-structured interviews with the owners of the business. Reviews of financial statements, market-related factors (e.g., location, competition), or marketing-related artifacts (clients acquired by quarter, advertising mediums, customer lifetime value analyses), dimensions associated with success in business literature, were not performed. She did mention that she reviewed each company’s business plan to “verify if they are on the right path to potential risks or rewards” (p. 54). Besides the Unit of Focus changing from business to business owner, I guess the researcher will also be able to ‘see the future’ regarding potential risks and rewards.

The overarching research question in this study was – What strategies do salon business owners need to succeed in business beyond 5 years? Next, let’s look at the the interview guide (My thoughts are in blue)

  1. What strategies do you use to enhance growth of your business? (The novice researcher is requiring each participant to provide a list of strategies. Do they know what a strategy is? I suppose it’s easier to ask a participant to provide a list rather than dig through documents and transcripts to determine which strategies were key)
  2. How important is having a strategy to you as a small business owner? (Wait! First, tell me what strategies (if any) you employ to enhance growth, then tell me their importance? Does that mean some strategies are not important? Which strategies didn’t enhance growth?)
  3. How do you compete with larger salons? (The size of the competitors salon was just primed by the novice researcher. The participant is now instructed to ignore small- or equal-sized competitors, potentially next door, and discuss how they compete with larger competitors. Hopefully, this line of inquiry leads to a series of marketing-related themes)
  4. What are the causes of negative challenges in salons? (What’s a negative challenge? It’s not defined by the researcher. I searched for the term in some academic literature and couldn’t find anything. If not defined by the researcher, who knows how this will be interpreted by the participants. Taking that into consideration, is the researcher now having the participants speak for the entire industry? Did the scope of the inquiry just change?)
  5. What are some gains or losses of being a successful business owner? (Another swerve from the identification of success factors in operating a salon for 5+ years to entrepreneurship rewards and sacrifices)
  6. What additional information can you provide to assist me in understanding successful salon operations? (A throw-away request for information. With no follow-up to any of the other five items, who cares at this point…)

Before I dig into the themes, I find it troublesome when no details are provided about each business. How long have they been in business? What is their revenue? How many employees? Where are they located in Savannah, generally speaking? How many clients do they see in an average week? What is the average sale? Nothing to tell the reader anything about the businesses so they can decide whether to ignore the study and its results or potentially apply it to different situations.

Now, the themes –

Theme 1: Key Strategies for Salon Owners to Succeed in Business beyond 5 years – Yes, the first theme was the research question. Regardless of the questionable title (Who reviewed this study?), the researcher listed three strategies: Education, Training, and Skills. This makes sense since one has to be licensed by the State of Georgia to practice and maintain a record of Continuing Education. But should a “key strategy” be to make sure you are licensed in the State? It would appear that licensure would be the entrance to the field.

Theme 2: Effective Strategies for a Successful Business – Again, a questionable title; however, three strategies were listed: Customer Service, Niche Marketing, and Technology. The novice researcher reported that P1 stated “she employs excellent customer service in her establishment to all customers” (p. 70). What does “excellent customer service” mean? Isn’t that a self-serving statement? Is somebody going to say they don’t provide excellent customer service? This is an example of a novice researcher “reporting” what people say and calling it a theme rather than a participant describing the customer interaction process and the researcher characterizing the level of customer service. Next, niche marketing. The novice researcher describes how P2 appeared to have a niche market in hair molds and pieces for clients that have lost their hair to cancer, etc. However, there is no reference to the % of sales attributed to this service. Finally, technology. P1 stated she doesn’t use technology to schedule appointments while P2 does. In a 50-50 situation, I don’t understand why this was included in the study.

Theme 3: Determination and Dedication – Both participants identified their own determination and dedication, in what could be described as “self-serving” statements, so the novice researcher “reported” it (pp. 72-73). I guess we’ll never know the components of determination and dedication the two business-owners displayed.

Theme 4: Professionalism – When reading the analysis, the comments made by the participants align with Theme 3. But I’m speculating that because both participants commented about “providing professional environment, service, and attitude” (p. 74), it appears this was another case of extracting words used by the participant and making it a theme.

Yin (2018) describes two types of multiple-case study designs: holistic and embedded. A holistic design focuses on a single unit of analysis, while an embedded design involves looking at multiple units (p. 48). Without an explanation on the size and complexity of the two businesses, its difficult to determine which would have been appropriate; however, simply asking the business owners their thoughts fails both design models.

I don’t know whether to place responsibility on the quality (or lack thereof) of this study on the student, chairperson, committee, or University (my alma mater). This is an example of how the peer-review process can fail an emerging researcher. Regardless, the results of this study should be ignored due to internal validity issues.


Johnson-Hilliard, M. (2015). Small business sustainability in the salon industry (Doctoral dissertation). ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. (3736144).

Yin, R. K. (2018). Case study research and applications: Design and methods (6th Ed.). SAGE Publications.