Research Skills: A Fundamental Asset for Accountants

By Jacqueline A. Burke, Robert Katz, Sheila A. Handy, and Ralph S. Polimeni

JANUARY 2008 –
The 21st century accountant is more of a consultant than in the past, and needs to be able to locate both financial and nonfinancial information. Accountants need to know what databases and other resources to access, how to extract the relevant data, and how to organize and analyze the data and develop recommendations. Accounting educators are responsible for teaching students the skills that are essential to this research.

Importance of Research Skills for Accountants

In “Position Statement Number One, Objectives of Education for Accountants” (Issues in Accounting Education, 1990), the Accounting Education Change Commission (AECC), appointed by the American Accounting Association (AAA), stressed the importance of research skills to accounting students. According to the AECC, as part of having the appropriate skills, accounting graduates should possess the “ability to locate, obtain and organize information.” Accounting graduates must have a strong:

[A]bility to identify, gather, measure, summarize, verify, analyze, and interpret financial and nonfinancial data that are useful for addressing the goals, problems, and opportunities … the focus should be on developing analytical and conceptual thinking, not on memorizing professional standards.

As the result of a more recent study, “Accounting Education: Chartering the Course Through a Perilous Future” (W.S. Albrecht and R.J. Sack, American Accounting Association, 2000), the profession urged educators to focus on teaching more critical-thinking skills rather than more content. In order to prepare students for the complex business environment, instructors were encouraged to help them acquire research skills.

Research Skills and the CPA Exam

The AICPA acknowledges that accounting graduates need to be proficient in conducting research. The CPA examination now tests the research skills of accounting candidates. According to the AICPA’S “Skills for the Uniform CPA examination” (available at, 2003), which details the most important skills-based competencies that accounting students need for the profession, candidates must demonstrate their ability to conduct research: to search the professional literature, identify relevant information, and form conclusions. According to the AICPA, candidates are expected to demonstrate the “ability to review current rules, regulations and interpretations in a particular context” for accounting, auditing and attestation, and tax literature. The following is a specific example provided by the AICPA on a question that would assess this skill:

Use the Financial Accounting Research System (FARS) research materials available under the RESOURCES tab to find the answer to the following question in either the Current Text or the Original Pronouncements. Copy the appropriate citation in its entirety from the source you have chosen and paste it into the space provided below. Use only one source. (AICPA Skills 2003, p. 2)

According to the AICPA’s “Core Competency Framework to the Skills Tested on the CPA Exam” (available at:
), the specific question might concern an issue involving the revenue-recognition or matching principle. The candidate could be required to come to a conclusion about the appropriate accounting treatment based on the research material chosen. As stated by the AICPA:

Many accounting profession functions depend on obtaining information from within and outside of an entity. Accordingly, the individual preparing to enter the accounting profession needs to have strong research skills to access relevant guidance or other information, understand it, and apply it. (AICPA Core Competency, p. 4)

Computers and Research Skills

Being computer literate is not the equivalent to being research literate. A computer-literate student knows basic computer skills—for example, how to access the Internet and how to use basic programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel. Many students are required to take a basic computer class to ensure that they are computer literate. The research-literate accounting student, however, knows how to access and search through the professional authoritative literature available from the Internet and other sources, extract and analyze relevant information, and apply it to a specific situation. A research-literate individual must be able to think critically when accessing, analyzing, and using information.

Integration into the Curriculum

Research skills can be integrated into an accounting curriculum in several ways. The library can offer classes as noncredit workshops required of all students, perhaps as part of a freshman orientation program. This approach would be most effective if specific workshops are designed for accounting majors only. The workshops should be required of all students before they enroll in upper-level accounting courses.

Alternatively, libraries can offer accounting majors credit via a course that satisfies a general education requirement. In addition, accounting instructors can integrate one or more research projects into their classes and require that students attend a library workshop designed for the specific course at the beginning of the semester. The instructor can also arrange for a librarian to offer an in-class workshop.

Students should be exposed to various research databases, such as ABI Inform (ProQuest), Business Source Premier, LexisNexis Academic Universe, Dun & Bradstreet’s Million Dollar Database, and RIA CheckPoint. Students should also be provided with instruction about specific websites, such as for FASB, GASB, Rutgers Accounting Web (RAW), and the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system (EDGAR). It is crucial that students not only learn about these different sites, but that they also learn about the types of information available from each site. Minimally, the workshop should familiarize students with the different online and other professional literature available and the types of information that can be accessed.

The workshops should engage students actively in the research process. In other words, librarians should not simply provide a list of the databases and websites to the students, along with a description of each source. Instead, students should be required to search for information by accessing various sources. Ideally, students will do this while working on an accounting project, so they can apply the information they are learning to a specific situation. In addition, as part of the workshop or lesson, instructors should emphasize the differences in quality of information. For example, students need to understand the differences between scholarly (academic) publications, trade journals, and popular (general interest) publications. If a library workshop or course is taken prior to an accounting course, students would also benefit from additional guidance from the instructor on how to complete a project.

Integration into Accounting Courses

Some schools have already integrated the coverage of research skills into the accounting curriculum and have achieved positive results. The following are examples of current practices in research skills integration:

Sonoma State University. Sonoma State University added a component to the advanced accounting course in a collaborative effort between the course instructor and the business librarian. After the librarian presented the available resources and search strategies, students completed a practice case using the FARS database, which became the source for case assignments that students completed in groups. In addition to FARS, students searched other authoritative accounting literature and business databases to complete the assignments. In an effort to assess the effectiveness of the exercise, students were surveyed before and after the module to ascertain their knowledge of authoritative publications. Before the module, 24% of the students indicated they knew what an exposure draft was. At the end, this number had risen to 72%. The exercise also increased the percentage of students who recognized the acronym EITF (Emerging Issues Task Force) from 11% to 80%.

University of Massachusetts. In the fall 2005 semester, an accounting instructor, Professor Charles Thompson, from the University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Campus, created a pilot research skills project for the university’s financial accounting course. The purpose of the project, in addition to teaching students about fraudulent financial reporting and ethical issues, was to strengthen the research skills of students and enhance their critical thinking. Students were expected to learn how to use the electronic library for research and to learn the differences between scholarly and popular publications. As part of the course requirements, students had to search for an article about financial accounting fraud in a popular publication and then search again for an article on the same fraud issue from a scholarly publication. Students had to highlight and compare the important issues of each article. Students were expected to compare the writing styles of both articles and provide an opinion as to which article they found to be more reliable and provide the reasons for their opinion.

Stetson University. Several instructors from Stetson University conducted a study to determine if the process in which accounting students conduct research could be improved by providing students with specific research instructions before completing a research assignment (J.P. Stryker, B. Costello, and R. Lenholt, “‘Linking’ Technology and Research for Student Learning,” presented at the American Accounting Association Southeast Regional Meeting, 2003). Faculty from the library designed an instructional handout for each of four accounting courses: governmental accounting, advanced accounting seminar, resources for tax research, and financial accounting IV and nonprofit. These handouts were posted to the course website for each class and contained hyperlinks to various accounting databases.

For example, for the governmental accounting course, links were provided to the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB), GASB, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and sample financial reports and budgets for several counties in Florida. For the advanced accounting seminar, students were provided with links to ABI Inform, enabling them to access the full text of articles in business journals, the D&B Million Dollar Database for information on major public and private companies, FASB, Rutgers Accounting Web, the SEC, and the LexisNexis Universe. These links, among many others, were made available to the students so they could learn how to retrieve journal articles, locate SEC reports, and access the appropriate websites for each project. A description for each of the databases and websites was presented with each link. The instructors concluded that providing this guided research is an effective way to expose accounting students to resources they will utilize in their professional careers (Stryker, Costello, and Lenholt, 2003).

Teaching Research Skills Using a Three-Step Approach

The authors of this article believe that teaching research skills to accounting students will be most effective if the process includes the following three steps:

  • Find relevant sources. The course instructor should engage the assistance of the library staff. In addition to receiving an introduction to discipline-specific information, instructors should teach the differences between popular, trade, and academic publications. An explanation of intellectual honesty issues and proper citations should also be covered. If this exercise falls within the context of an accounting course, an overview of financial databases, such as Edgar and FARS, is necessary. The instructor might also choose to offer supplementary handouts or instructions.
  • Evaluate the data. Students must learn how to select, summarize, and synthesize the information acquired from their research.
  • Draw conclusions and report findings. Students must learn how to produce new information, such as a research paper or presentation.

It is not always necessary to have three distinct steps. Sometimes the design of the research project will flow better if steps are combined.

Example: Introductory Financial Accounting Course

The purpose of this project is to introduce accounting students to the SEC’s Edgar database. Specifically, students will learn to—

  • use Edgar to access current and previous 10-K reports of a specific company,
  • discover financial and nonfinancial information about a company by reading its 10-K, and
  • assess a company’s performance by analyzing 10-K reports over a period of time.

Find relevant data. Students must be taught how to use the SEC’s Edgar database. This can be done by the instructor, a handout, a textbook, or a librarian. Although guided instruction is generally preferred to providing students with a handout or referring them to a textbook, this project is straightforward enough for students to learn from written directions.

Students will be asked to access the most current 10-K from the SEC’s Edgar database for a specific company.

Evaluate the data. Students will be required to answer the following questions:

  • What is the company’s central index key (CIK) number?
  • In what year did the company begin operations?
  • What is the company’s fiscal year end?
  • Who is the company’s auditor?
  • What was the company’s accounting equation for the past three years?
  • Has the company’s performance been improving or weakening over the past three years (hint: access the additional 10-K reports that are necessary)? Explain and provide any supporting computations.

Draw conclusions and report findings. Students will be asked to prepare a paper summarizing their answers to the above, and discuss the reason for the company’s improved or weakened financial position
(Components of this project were adapted from Edmonds, Edmonds, McNair, and Olds, Fundamental Financial Accounting Concepts, Fifth Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2006.)

Example: Intermediate Accounting Course

The purpose of this project is to teach students how to use FARS to research authoritative accounting literature. Specifically, students will be required to research the appropriate accounting treatment for the losses and costs of two catastrophic events. Students will need to learn how to use and cite sources from FARS in order to complete this project. It is recommended that several library workshops be devoted to this.

Find relevant data. Students will be asked to use FARS to determine the required accounting treatment of two events: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005.
Evaluate the data. Students will be asked to answer the following questions, providing appropriate citation for all sources:

  • What was the required accounting treatment for the losses of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?
  • What were the reasons provided by FASB’s EITF for its decision? How did the EITF’s original, tentative decisions differ from its final decision?
  • What was the required accounting treatment for the losses of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005? What were the reasons for the treatment?

Draw conclusions and report findings. Students will be required to write a paper summarizing their answers to the above, citing all sources. As part of the paper, they will be asked to answer the following additional questions:

  • Do you agree with the EITF’s position for the required accounting treatment for September 11, 2001? Explain. Support your position by including at least one article from two or more of the following sources: academic (scholarly) journals, trade journals (such as The CPA Journal), popular business magazines (such as BusinessWeek or Fortune), and popular newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal or New York Times).
  • Do you agree with the required accounting treatment for the losses of Hurricane Katrina? Explain. Support your position by including one article from two or more of the sources listed above.

Example: Auditing Course

The purpose of this project is to teach auditing students how to access actual enforcement actions by the SEC’s Accounting and Auditing Enforcement Release (AAER) with the ultimate goal of preparing a paper that provides an analysis of each AAER action.

Find relevant data. Students will be asked to select two of the following AAER actions:

  • AAER 1491, KPMG/AIM Funds (investment in mutual fund)
  • AAER 1584, Moret E&Y/Baan Company (jointly marketed services)
  • AAER 1596, PWC/Various Clients (Part C–Improper Contingent Fee Arrangements).

To download the AAERs from the Edgar website, go to On the right side of the screen, under “Divisions/Offices,” select “Enforcement.” Select “Selected Accounting and Auditing Enforcement Releases” and then select the appropriate AAER.

Evaluate the data and draw conclusions and report findings. For each of the AAERs, students will be required to complete the following:

  • Identify the specific rule of the AICPA Code of Conduct that was broken and explain, in detail, the nature of the deficiency relating to independence.
  • Summarize the “Legal Analysis/
    Standards” section relating to independence.
  • Describe the punishment given to the CPAs and discuss whether the punishment was appropriate. The position taken should be supported by including other sources, including academic journals, trade journals, popular business magazines, and popular newspapers.

(This example has been adapted from Jill D’Aquila, “Using SEC Enforcement Actions to Teach Accounting and Ethics–Related Concepts,” Advances in Accounting Education, 2008.)

Example: Tax Course

The purpose of this project will be to teach students how to research a specific tax statute with the ultimate goal of presenting an argument for or against the tax law.

Find relevant data. At the beginning of the semester, students will be required to attend an information session with the university librarian. Students will be exposed to the various “non-Google” resources available to them that will be useful for their assignments. Such resources will include LexisNexis, CCH Internet Tax Research Network, RIA Checkpoint, BNA Tax and Accounting Center, Westlaw, the Joint Committee on Taxation, ArticleFirst, Business Source Premier, Factiva, and JSTOR. Ideally, the professor will be available during the presentation to enhance the discussions in the event technical questions arise that are best answered by the professor.

  • Students will be required to access information about the history behind the implementation of a particular statute, using the various sources discussed in the previous paragraph. A minimum of two sources will be required.
  • Students will also be required to access various opinions prepared by tax or economic policy groups such as the Tax Foundation, the National Center for Policy Analysis: Tax Issues, or the Brookings Institution or Cato Institute. A minimum of four sources will be required—two opinions for and two opinions against the legislation.

Evaluate the data. Students will be required to synthesize their findings, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of the specific tax statute. As part of the evaluation process, students will be required to maintain a research log where they document and evaluate each source used. As part of their evaluation, they must evaluate the usefulness and quality of the sources used.

Draw conclusions and report findings. Students will be required to document their findings, prepare a paper, and deliver a 10-minute presentation using available classroom technology that:

  • Provides a brief background to the history of the tax law, including the reasons for that statute;
  • Discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the statute; and
  • Presents a convincing argument as to why the statute should or should not have been enacted.

Shaping Tomorrow’s Accountants

Research skills are a necessity for today’s accountants, and teaching students how to acquire those skills should be one of the goals of accounting programs. The objective should be to fully integrate research skills throughout the accounting curriculum in order to help accounting students become proficient in doing research.

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Jacqueline A. Burke, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting in the department of accounting, taxation, and legal studies in business at the Frank G. Zarb School of Business at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.
Sheila A. Handy, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor of economics and business at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa.
Robert Katz, JD, LLM, is a professor of taxation and holds the Chaykin Distinguished Teaching Professorship in Taxation, also at Hofstra University.
Ralph S. Polimeni, PhD, CPA, is the vice provost for accreditation and assessment, and holds the Chaykin Endowed Chair in Accounting at Hofstra University. Prior to his current position, Polimeni served as dean of the Frank G. Zarb School of Business.

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