What is accounting research?
From PhD Prep Track
Accounting research is hard to define because it has shifted over time. As a rough overview, early accounting research (pre-1960s) was mostly normative (i.e., argued for the “correct” accounting treatment, or what should be). With the advent of the Journal of Accounting Research, advances in finance such as the efficient market hypothesis, creation of large data sets and the statistical abilities to analyze them (i.e., computers), and the publication of Ball and Brown’s seminal work in 1968, accounting research moved into positive research (i.e., examining what is rather than what should be). Although this change has had its critics, it has resulted in a significant increase in research output (and many new journals).
A cynical definition of research is: any paper that cites a lot of other accounting papers must be accounting research. This “quick and dirty” definition restricts accounting research to topics and methodologies that are well established in the literature; it is “safe” but somewhat limiting. More rigorously, Oler, Oler, and Skousen (2009) attempt to characterize accounting research by looking at the topics, research methodologies, and citations made by papers published in a set of six top accounting journals (AOS, CAR, JAE, JAR, RAST, and TAR). Their work can be criticized, though, because they do not consider all accounting journals, and because their categorizations of topics (6 of them) and research methodologies (7 of them) are broad. In spite of shortcomings, their paper appears to be the first that attempts to characterize and define accounting research, which they define as follows: “accounting research is research into the effect of economic events on the process of summarizing, analyzing, verifying, and reporting standardized financial information, and on the effects of reported information on economic events.”
Professors typically will choose a subject area and a methodology in which to focus their efforts. Subject areas include the topical areas considered under the umbrella term "accounting." These include information systems, auditing and assurance, corporate governance, financial, forensic, managerial, and tax.
General Overview of Accounting Research
“Academic research looks at how accounting affects the world around us and how the world affects accounting.” Teresa P. Gordon and Jason C. Porter
Accounting research plays an essential part in creating new knowledge. The hard sciences have produced models of research and testing that can be used and applied over many disciplines including accounting research. Using these models along with evidence such as financial statements, stock prices, surveys, experiments, computer simulations, and mathematical proofs, we can gain a scientific perspective and basis for the following:
- Deciding and implementing new accounting or auditing standards
- Presenting unusual economic transactions in the financial statements
- Learning how new tax laws impact clients and employers
- Discerning how the accounting profession affects the capital markets through academic accounting research
Researchers perform two main types of research, positive and normative.
- Positive research is the branch of academic research in accounting that seeks to explain and predict actual accounting practices.
- Normative research, in contrast, seeks to derive and prescribe "optimal" accounting standards.
Researchers use the scientific method to search for cause and effect relationships. By using the scientific method, the researcher has a systematic model that enables documentation of their results. The more specific the researcher is in documenting their methods, the better others will be able to follow and repeat their experiment.
- Observation: As with most research, accounting research begins with the researcher making an observation, seeing a potential pattern, or wondering how an action or event may affect a future action or event.
- Develop theory: The researcher then uses these observations to develop a theory or an explanation of might be causing these actions or events.
- Background research: Once the researcher finds an interest and develops a theory, background research on this theory is important. The background research is to help the researcher discover similar past theories, current and alternative theories, what evidence has been brought forth and tests performed. This research will save the researcher a great deal of time and guide their research to test a new aspect or help resolve areas of disagreement.
- Use theory to develop hypothesis: After this background research is conducted and existing theories discerned, the researcher will use their theory to create a specific hypothesis. This hypothesis should focus on an untested area or area of disagreement. Additionally, the hypothesis should make a specific prediction about how an action or condition will affect other actions or conditions.
- Test if hypothesis is correct: With a hypothesis developed, the researcher needs to identify sources of data and design tests to examine the hypothesis. The design of the tests should address the following:
- How well the study captures a cause-and-effect relationship;
- How well the variables used in a study capture the ideas and events in the hypothesis;
- How well the results from a study can be applied to other settings
- Examine test results: Once the tests have been design, operated and data collected, the next step is to use statistical methods to compare the actual results with the hypothesized results and determine if there is significant evidence to confirm the hypothesis.
- Confirm or disconfirm theory: After the evidence has been examined and sensitivity analysis ran, the researcher can then confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis and theory the hypothesis was derived from.
Accounting Research Topical Areas
Accounting Information Systems (AIS)
Studies which address issues related to the systems and the users of systems that collect, store, and generate accounting information. Users are defined broadly to include those involved in collection, storage, or use of accounting information or even the implementation of the system. These systems may be electronic or not. Research streams include, but are not limited to design science, ontological investigations, expert systems, decision aides, support systems, processing assurance, security, controls, system usability, and system performance.
Studies in which the topical content involves an audit topic. These studies vary widely and include, but are not limited to, the study of the audit environment—external and internal, auditor decision making, auditor independence, the effects of auditing on the financial reporting process, and auditor fees.
- For a summary of audit fee research see Hay, Knechel, and Wong (2006, available here)
- For a review of archival audit research see DeFond and Zhang (2013 working paper, available here)
Studies that address the topical content of financial accounting, capital markets, and decision making based on financial accounting information.
- For a review of the financial reporting research see Beyer, Cohen, Lys, and Walther (2010, available here)
- For a review of the capital markets research in accounting see Kothari (2001, available here)
- For a review of empirical research on accounting choice see Fields, Lys, and Vincent (2001, available here)
Studies that examine issues regarding budgeting, compensation, decision-making within an enterprise, incentives, and the allocation of resources within an enterprise.
- For a review of empirical research in Managerial Accounting see Ittner and Larcker (2001, available here)
Studies that examine issues related to taxpayer decision-making, tax allocations, tax computations, structuring of accounting transactions to meet tax goals, tax incentives, or market reactions to tax disclosures.
- For a review of tax research see Hanlon and Heitzman (2010, available here) and Shackelford and Shevlin (2001, available here)
- For a review of research in accounting of income taxes see Graham, Raedy, and Shackelford (2010, available here)
- Empirical Tax Research in Accounting: A Discussion, Ed Maydew
- Taxes and Corporate Finance, John Graham
- Research in Taxation, Terry Shevlin
- The future of tax research: A mostly economics perspective William Gentry
- The future of tax research: From an accounting professor's perspective, Terry Shevlin
- A legal perspective on unanswered questions in taxation research, David Weisbach and George Plesko
- The Future of Tax Research: What Are the Unanswered Questions?, John Robinson
- Handbook of Public Finance This is a series that has been going on for a couple decades where they get economists to write reviews about issues in public finance (the sub-field in economics that deals with taxes). Many of the articles can be found for free on SSRN. Go to the newer issues to look at what economists are up to now when they research taxes.
- Taxation and corporate financial policy, Alan J. Auerbach, a chapter from the Handbook of Public Finance referenced above.
Other Topical Areas
Studies that do not fit into one of the other topical areas. The topical areas in these studies vary significantly and include such things as education, methodologies, law, psychology, history, the accounting profession, work environment, etc.
Accounting Research Methodologies
One thing to avoid when discussing methodologies is to refer to one of the methods as "empirical" to differentiate from other methods. This is most often done by archival researchers who refer to their research as empirical and not to include experimental research under the "empirical umbrella." Empirical research is research that is verifiable based on observation or experimentation; thus, archival and experimental research are both empirical in nature.
Researchers who utilize analytical methods base analysis and conclusions on formally modeling theories or substantiated ideas in mathematical terms. These analytical studies use math to predict, explain, or give substance to theory.
- For a recent example of analytical research in accounting, see Gao (2010, available here)
Researchers who utilize archival methods base analysis and conclusions on objective data collected from repositories of third parties. Also included are studies in which the researchers collected the data and in which the data has objective amounts such as net income, sales, fees, etc.
- For a recent example of archival research in accounting, see Ball and Shivakumar (2008, available here)
Researchers who utilize experimental methods base analysis and conclusions on data the researcher gathered by administering treatments to subjects. Usually these studies employed random assignment; however, if the researcher selected different populations in an attempt to “manipulate” a variable, we also included these as experimental in nature (e.g., participants of different experience levels were selected for participation). Experimental research can include analyzing both economic and behavioral factors.
- For a recent example of experimental research in accounting, see Magilke, Mayhew, and Pike (2009, available here)
Other Research Methodologies
Studies that did not fit into one of the other methodological categories. The methodologies in these studies vary significantly and include such things as surveys, case studies, field studies, simulations, persuasive arguments, etc.
Skills necessary to be a successful researcher
Although there have been great discoveries made by accident that have changed the great paradigms of knowledge, academic research and the creation of knowledge is not an event left to chance. Academic research comes from mastering of skills that enable the researcher to carry out research processes that will contribute and progress the current accepted knowledge base and industry practices and open up new ideas and areas of research to follow.
Some of the skills necessary to become a successful researcher include the following:
- The ability to know and stay abreast of current work within your field of research.
- Staying abreast of the research being performed and the publication of such work, is important as you further your own research, discover new questions and problems and contribute to your fellow researchers. Being involved with workshops and peer reviews, as well as working with fellow professors and reading the publications in the peer journals are some ways in which to stay abreast of the current work in the industry. A listing of top journals can be found at Accounting Journals
- The ability to understand and recognize research problems.
- Researchers need not only stay abreast of current research being performed and published, they also need to understand and recognize difficulties in performing their own research or that of research performed by others.
- The ability to understand research content.
- The ability to read and understand the content of research articles is an important skill for academics and practitioners alike. Teresa P. Gordon and Jason C. Porter have a great list of hints to reading a research paper in their article Reading and Understanding Academic Research in Accounting: A Guide for Students. Read part of it here.
- The ability to discover where you can make a contribution, and to be able to evaluate and re-evaluate your contribution.
- The ability to discern a topic that will add knowledge to the field and trigger your interests is a great strength. Additionally, being able to evaluate the causality, strength, and validity of your research is important, not only when initially writing it, but to return and re-evaluate later and see if it needs to be edited or expanded.
- The ability to master appropriate experimental, mathematical, and computational research skills.
- It is necessary to build a strong base of mathematical and statistical tools to be able to draw on and enable you to build experiments that have good construct and internal validity.
- The ability to think critically and analytically.
- As you perform research, the ability to examine assumptions, assess evidence, discern hidden values, and evaluate the conclusion will be greatly utilized. Additionally, the ability to break a concept or paradigm into its constituent parts and then study the parts and find and evaluate the relationships between those parts is also a skill that will further your research goals.
- The ability to formulate plans to meet short-term and long-term goals and time-specific deadlines.
- The ability to follow good research practices.
- Being able to develop experiments or studies that are built on good solid research practices will strengthen the research you do and lend credibility to your work that fellow users can rely on.
- The ability to document and report your work.
- After the data is gathered and analyzed and conclusions are developed and confirmed, the researcher needs the ability to effectively communicate their work in a paper such as a thesis paper. The documenting of others who have worked in similar areas, contributed to your work, or you have used to further your research is important.
- The ability to communicate and defend a coherent argument to interested parties.
- Effective communication includes not only written papers, but the ability to address and defend your work in a public setting that includes fellow researchers and practitioners. To take criticism with a view to improve your work and strengthen the field is desirable.
- The ability to critically review the worth of your own work and the works of other researchers.
- A researcher needs to be able to critically review their own work as well as the work of others and assess the strengths and weaknesses of it. Determine if there is a causal relationship and to assess the various types of validity. See if there is strong enough internal validity – the strength of the controlled experiment. Evaluate the construct validity – is what is being measured actually capture the ideas and events in the hypothesis. Is there good statistical conclusion validity – when everything else is in place, is there strong enough evidence to prove an actual difference. And finally external validity, now that we have proven that this is valid in this situation, how does it transfer to other situations and other subjects. These are a few of the concepts to analyze the strength of your own work as well as the strength of your fellow researchers work.
Information for these key points and further information on research skills can be found at:
Guidelines on PhD Research and Supervision, Professor Roberto Cipolla, University of Cambridge;
Research Skills Required by PhD Students, Cloudworks;
Reading and Understanding Academic Research in Accounting: A Guide for Students, Teresa P. Gordon and Jason C. Porter, University of Idaho.
How accounting research can make a difference in the world
- Affect practice (usually high level decision makers, through textbooks)
- Mentor researchers' thinking who then change world through consulting, professional service, teaching
- Affect standard setters
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