Make Tax Research Less Taxing

Information to help you choose from among several Web-based premium and economy tax research services.
BY CATANACH, C. ANDREW LAFOND AND SHELLEY C. RHOADES-CATANACH

  

 
 

Selecting a Web-based tax research service is not a simple task. Commercial publishers offer a variety of premium and economy plans that can be bundled and priced in many ways. The variations make the selection process especially difficult. Although the basic pricing and services of the products are similar, it’s the extras—such as level of service, degree of customization and ease of access—that differentiate them.

This article is designed to help tax professionals wade through the product details to find the service that best suits their needs and budget (see Exhibits 1 and 2).

GO FOR THE WEB
The two obvious advantages of a Web-based service over a paper-based or noncommercial Internet resource are the ability to easily toggle between primary and secondary sources through hypertext links and to use keywords to simultaneously search sources.

For practitioners who prefer more traditional research methods, most Web-based products also permit searches by citation, table of contents or topical index. A Web-based service also provides daily updates of primary and secondary sources and enables access to the data from any computer with an Internet connection. In addition, the user no longer needs to continuously update a large paper library.

The tax research services listed in this article include Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), Commerce Clearing House (CCH), Research Institute of America (RIA), LexisNexis, Tax Analysts and Kleinrock. All provide access to primary tax law sources (Internal Revenue Code, Treasury regulations, rulings and cases).

One key characteristic that differentiates these services is how they package tax law and analyses—either as an annotated or a topical service. Although the distinction between the two methods was important in a paper environment, now, with the advent of keyword searches, it’s less significant. Several research providers (CCH, RIA and Kleinrock) include annotated services in which editorial explanations and analyses are arranged chronologically by IRC section number. All providers offer services that arrange editorial materials by topic.

CITATORS AND TREATISES
Another useful research tool is the citator, which is an editorial resource that lets the practitioner assess the validity of case law and IRS administrative rulings. Currently, only CCH, RIA and LexisNexis provide citators. These same research services, in addition to BNA, also offer access to a vast selection of treatises that offer background details in a specific area and are particularly useful to practitioners dealing with unfamiliar issues.

Most research services provide their own editorial materials as secondary sources, although CCH and RIA customers also can subscribe to the BNA Tax Management Portfolios. LexisNexis offers its own topical service and code-based service (Tax Advisor Federal Topical and Tax Advisor Federal Code) in addition to content from other publishers, including CCH, BNA, Tax Analysts, Matthew Bender and Kleinrock.

Pricing for a year’s subscription among research providers ranges from a few hundred dollars for a single user of a basic economy service to tens of thousands of dollars for premium content for multiple users. CCH, BNA, RIA and LexisNexis let users customize how much content they buy. In contrast, Tax Analysts and Kleinrock offer just two fixed-content bundles: one with less editorial content and another premium-priced version with more editorial analysis.

LexisNexis offers a pay-as-you-go plan based on usage. All of the premium research packages offer at least one tax journal. However, both premium and economy services include either a weekly and/or daily newsletter to keep practitioners current on new federal, state and local tax developments. These timely periodicals increasingly are delivered via e-mail and often are customized to a user’s specific interests.

Recently, some research firms have begun integrating their Web-based tax research services with tax-preparation software, allowing a practitioner to research questions while working on a tax return. CCH’s Tax Research Network has a free link to its ProSystem fx for users who subscribe to the Standard Federal Tax Reporter and Tax Research Consultant libraries. RIA links to its Insource Express RS, GoSystem Tax RS and Creative Solutions’ Ultra Tax CS for a fee; and Kleinrock’s research products integrate with its ATX 1040 Total Tax Office product—also for an additional charge.

The vendors make creative use of technology in other ways. CCH’s CCH @ Hand, a product included as part of every Tax Research Network subscription, allows Microsoft products—Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook—to communicate with its Internet-based library. For example, Code Section and Revenue Rulings can be linked to and accessed directly via e-mail. Additionally, the LexisNexis Tax Center now includes a bill back feature that makes it easy for practitioners to track research sessions by client for efficient and accurate billing.

CONTENT AND ACCESS
Accessibility is the most significant difference among all of the research services. A user’s ease of access to content and the Web site’s “feel” while performing search queries are important considerations to users, which is why potential subscribers should take advantage of the vendors’ free trial offers.

Each research service has a main menu separating the primary legal sources from the secondary sources. Each product looks and works differently. For example, the Boolean connectors used for performing a keyword search vary by service.

Listed below are the major differences in editorial content, search method capability, platform layout and appearance:

BNA’s Tax and Accounting Center includes its Tax Management Portfolios as well as the topical Tax Practice Series and the Daily Tax Report newsletter. Similar to its paper publication, BNA’s electronic resource also is topically designed. From a keyword search, which is available from every screen, and citation search, the results screen displays the search query as well as two ways to review results. Users have the option of sorting search results by relevance or grouped in the order of the Portfolio number or Tax Practice chapter number. BNA also uses a “1” and “2” system to signal that subheadings are viewable within a specific topic. In addition, BNA provides the option to open categories by level and to view documents in split or full screen. The split-screen display accommodates browsing through the publication since a user can move around the table of contents of the publication being viewed.

CCH products include the Standard Federal Tax Reporter, CCH Research Consultant, U.S. Master Tax Guide and CCH Citator in addition to numerous journals and newsletters. This research resource differs significantly in its appearance and layout from other services. It organizes each of its major databases (for example, Federal Tax, State Tax, Pension and Payroll, Sales/Property Tax) using folder tabs. It uses a “Search Tools” button so users can customize keyword searches (for example, search methods, number of documents retrieved and how results will be listed). A unique feature is its thesaurus, which runs in the background on every keyword search; all the other services require a user to take extra steps to select the synonyms for the keywords being used in a search.

Kleinrock’s Federal Tax Expert service offers users access to Kleinrock’s Expert Analysis and CCH’s U.S. Master Tax Guide: Kleinrock Edition. As with other publishers, it provides search capability using either keyword, table of contents or citation, and documents retrieved from a search are sorted by relevance within each library searched. Boolean connectors used in a keyword search within Kleinrock can be selected from a dropdown menu.

LexisNexis Tax Center contains an array of content from other publishers, such as BNA, CCH, Tax Analysts, Matthew Bender and Shepard’s Citator Service as well as its own new library, the Tax Advisor—Federal Code. In addition to the traditional index and table of contents, users can search by keyword, code section and citation. In addition, the results are sorted by relevance and by category (for example, Statute and Regulations, Agency Materials, Professional Practice and Cases). Within each category, each source (IRC, Rulings, etc.) is listed along with the number of documents within that source. The service includes Shepard’s Citation Service signals (stop signs, warnings, green lights, etc.) that let users know if Administrative Rulings and case law are still valid.

RIA’s publications include the Federal Tax Coordinator 2d, United States Tax Reporter, Citator 2nd Series and the various Warren, Gorham & Lamont journals and treatises. This service makes keyword searches easy by clearly identifying required steps on the Search main menu. Findings from a search are summarized in a Results List, which gives the user the number of documents found by publication. A unique tool available for all tax types in the state reporter series is the “Compare It” feature, which links explanations that are provided for several states, helping users compare similar issues in several states. RIA also uses a sidebar to monitor and summarize search activity and provide links to additional tools, resources and references.

Tax Analysts provides practitioners with access to the Federal Tax Baedeker, as well as eight other databases, all of which can be searched through either a keyword, table of contents or citation search. Multiple databases can be searched simultaneously, and results can be sorted either by relevance or document type—a useful service at an affordable price.

  • Exhibit 1 : Premium Web-Based Research Services

  • Exhibit 2 : Select Economy Web-Based Research Services


    MAKING THE SELECTION
    As you can see, the buying decision is complicated because, although the basic services and prices are similar, it’s the extras that play a major role in selecting a product. All the services offer some type of training, ranging from Web-based help to in-depth, self-paced tutoring, involving sample research questions. Customer support also is available either online, by chat, phone or e-mail. Since all of the services offer a free trial, it’s prudent to take a test run.

    Anthony H. Catanach Jr. , CPA, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting at Villanova University. His e-mail address is anthony.catanach@villanova.edu. C. Andrew Lafond, CPA, DBA, is an assistant professor of accounting and taxation at Philadelphia University. His e-mail address is lafonda@philau.edu. Shelley C. Rhoades-Catanach, CPA, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting at Villanova. Her e-mail address is shelley.rhoades@villanova.edu.

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