Skills: A Fundamental Asset for Accountants
Jacqueline A. Burke, Robert Katz, Sheila A. Handy, and Ralph S.
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.
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
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: ceae.aicpa.org/Resources/Education+and+Curriculum+Development/
+Competency+Assessment+Web+Site), 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
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
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
Example: Introductory Financial Accounting Course
The purpose of this project is to introduce accounting students
to the SEC’s Edgar database. Specifically, students will
- 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
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
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
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
To download the AAERs from the Edgar website, go to www.sec.gov.
On the right side of the screen, under “Divisions/Offices,”
select “Enforcement.” Select “Selected Accounting
and Auditing Enforcement Releases” and then select the appropriate
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
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;
- 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
here to see Sidebar.
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