Scott Showalter, CPA, CGMA, calls himself an "eternal optimist." He believes that accounting research can do more to better serve practitioners, and he's now noticing that happen. Across more than 20 years of research experience — both as a faculty member and a partner with KPMG — the professor of the practice in accounting at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, N.C., has seen increasing overlap between the industry and academia.
Other faculty would like to see more research with more practical applications as well. Bob Allen, Ph.D., president of the American Accounting Association, addressed this topic in his plenary talk at the AAA's 2021 Annual Meeting. Allen, an accounting professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, said he believes accounting research can help address many issues in the profession and beyond — from the high price of health care to the human and financial costs of homelessness.
"Higher education is expensive, and taxpayers and students pay a lot of money for our services. An important part of our jobs is research, and I believe we have a responsibility to make a difference in the world in which we live," he said.
Many academics greatly favor research that is more theoretical than practical, and with good reason. Departments are more likely to recognize faculty whose work appears in elite journals, but such journals are incredibly competitive, said Alan Reinstein, CPA, DBA, an accounting professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. Faculty members can improve their chances of publication by examining complicated questions and using advanced methods to answer them. However, that type of research can take a long time and doesn't always address the everyday issues facing professional accountants, Reinstein said.
Tenured faculty, Showalter and Allen both observed, are more likely to publish in journals where they're able to highlight issues facing the practice. Often, those with tenure don't face the same pressure to have their work appear in specific publications. "Tenured faculty, faculty who are further along in their careers, are in a better position to take these kinds of risks," and invest precious time and energy into publishing in a wider variety of journals, Allen said.
Some schools and organizations are taking steps to encourage faculty to publish research with a more direct impact upon the profession. Some departments (like NCSU's, Showalter said) do recognize faculty for publishing in a variety of journals.
Showalter, as senior co-editor at Accounting Horizons, is also trying to promote more pragmatic research. The co-editors have outlined a new format for articles in the journal, which is published quarterly by the AAA. Authors need to submit articles that are shorter — with main text of about 3,500 words or fewer —and formatted in a way that's friendlier for readers and editors. For instance, each article must now begin with a short section outlining its contribution to the practice.
Research needs to be available to practitioners at the time when they're facing problems, not years after the fact, Showalter said. Though articles will still be peer-reviewed, reducing their length will likely allow researchers and editors to turn them around more quickly. It'll be a real, live experiment "to see if we can have a top journal with research that's written for practitioners," Showalter said.
Showalter feels hopeful that the interests of academics and accounting practitioners will continue to become more aligned. And these tips can help accounting faculty ensure their research is helpful to those outside of academia:
Connect with practitioners. Reinstein attends about 150 breakfast and lunch meetings with accounting industry professionals each year. "My job as a professor is to help my students succeed in the profession," he said. "How can I do that if I don't know what the profession wants for my students?" He speaks to practicing accountants about new technology they're using, trends they're seeing, and what's hot in the field. Then he takes what he learns into the classroom, and he also incorporates it into his research. For example, discussions with practitioners led him to write articles on implementing new FASB leasing standards, applying new AICPA attestation standards, developing cases on sustainability reporting, and providing benefits of mentoring professional accountants.
Allen agreed with this approach. "I think talking to practitioners is an important first step. Being aware of issues faced in the practice and using your skill in research methods to study those issues is something that can be really valuable when done well," he said.
It's important for faculty members and practitioners to talk early in the process, Showalter said. If practicing accountants can offer advanced insight on emerging issues, researchers can get a jump-start on working to address them.
Regulators and practicing accountants do want to be informed, he said.
"But if faculty want to influence regulators, they need to figure out how to get research, reviews, and publishing done in a quicker way," he said.
Influence change. Senior faculty members and those in leadership roles may be able to help steer their departments toward a place where they encourage publishing in a variety of different publications.
"I think it's valuable for individual schools to be careful [to not be] so narrow that we lose practicality," Allen said. "We can become so narrow that we miss out on the opportunity to be a greater resource to accounting practice and the community at large."
Consider the end user. When Reinstein retires from teaching, he plans to continue doing research, he said. "I love what I do. The profession has been wonderful for me, and I want to help the profession," he said. Faculty members wanting to influence change in the profession should focus on the final reader.
That's the idea behind changing the format for articles in Accounting Horizons, and it's something academics can consider when it comes to which projects to take up and where to publish. "I think academics do a lot of research that informs practice," Showalter said. But the "way it's packaged," he continued, "makes it difficult for the practice to consume it."
There's room for both the kind of research that appears in top journals and the type that's more accessible to practitioners, said Allen, a past winner of the Deloitte Foundation Wildman Medal Award for research that impacts the profession. "We should look for ways to have both rather than reasons why we can't," he said.
— Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.