Musings on Accounting Research by Steve

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Manifesto for the Radical Centre in Accounting Research

A Manifesto for the Radical Centre in Accounting Research (MRCAR)*

In my former life I raised the call for the “radical centre” of accounting research, those that have a certain set of beliefs about accounting research, to take a more active role in defining what is accounting research.  The reason to call the radical centre a “radical” position is that it is so rarely held in the accounting world.  The reason that it is a “centrist” position is that members of the radical centre tend to have an appreciation of the multiple methods and methodologies that can be employed to research accounting and view accounting widely as a discipline. This editing from the radical center will in the long run be good for us all as it will result in the gene pool of accounting scholars being replenished as accounting scholarship will be more attractive to a wider number of scholars.

Illustrating the breath of accounting research

Accounting can be said to include financial, managerial, audit, accounting information system, taxation and related areas like governance including its application to public companies, private for profit entities, not for profit organizations and government (and the like) entities.

Methods that can be used to study accounting include public company data bases, private proprietary data bases (often supplemented by public data), government data bases (e.g. tax records, not for profit filings), surveys (especially ones motivated by theoretical reasons for asking the questions), experiments (psychology and experimental markets and combination of the two), field studies (including case studies, interviews, participant observation, observational etc.), analytical models (including behavioral conjectures),  and history employing archives and public records.

Methodologies can be split between positive and qualitative with many gradations in between.  The former generally assumes that the eventual research goal is to study cause and effect relationships, even if only associations are being documented at present.  Implicit in positive research (I am not referring here to positive accounting theory which is just one tiny branch) is the assumption that some approximation of the “truth” is out there and that we can discover it using our methods.  The latter assumes that understanding how many aspects of the so-called “real world” are socially constructed is the goal of research and that the job of the researcher is to interpret “real world” empirical work through the lens of theories, theories that are often from sociology but can be from linguistics, economics, philosophy etc.  The most extreme form of qualitative research takes one into what we could call “critical” research where the very basis of our capitalistic system is questioned.

What is the accounting research radical center?

It is an appreciation that accounting research can cover numerous subject matters, employing a wide variety of methods and underlying social science disciplines.  It is an appreciation that one can search for “truth” while at the same time recognizing that many institutions, including accounting, are “socially constructed” by implicit norms that are “understood” by all those who “matter.”  Further, it values the rigor of the research NOT its conclusions or premises.  It takes a simple yet difficult position – that all research is created equal if the scientific community (as a whole) has reached a level of consensus about its utility.

Briefly put “members” of the radical center see accounting research as a true social science endeavor from anthropology to sociology, from economics to psychology, from history to philosophy. ALL social science disciplines, with research done within the rigor of the discipline, are treated without prejudice in the review process including the requirement that true peers do the reviews and make editorial decisions. Research methods are accepted based on the rigor of their application not some “one right way.”

Why the radical center is important to accounting research?

Remember I define the radical center as containing the small but growing group of accounting scholars who can see that accounting research needs to grow via incorporation of a broader set of social science disciplines into the halls of accepted dogma (aka paradigms).  The ability to see value in all types of accounting subject matters, methods and methodologies and an appreciation of underlying social science research diversity is a must. Association journals (TAR, CAR, EAR, Accounting and Finance and their subsidiary journals (call them sectional or practitioner oriented or what you will)) should be reflective of the diverse set of accounting subject matter, methods and methodologies in order to ensure sensitivity to the broad purpose of research – to create new knowledge in advance of when it is needed.

An Illustrative Problem when editing is NOT done from the Radical Center

Here is one example of the problem when such Editors are not sensitive to such matters.  A few years ago editors of Issues in Accounting Education published an article that claimed to be an in spirit follow-up to Bill Kinney’s much praised “What is really ours” paper.  The paper examined research in four journals (TAR, CAR, JAE and JAR restriction 1) that was authored by at least one American based scholar (restriction 2) and limited to a relatively recent period of time (restriction 3).  One small problem was that the only place that restriction 2 was mentioned (you had to have an American based co-author to count) was buried deep in the article.

While I protested to the journal’s editors at the time that such a major limitation should be front and center – they laughed (they are not candidates for membership in the radical center).

Why might this be a problem – an isolated article in Issues and how does it affect my argument of the need for editing from the radical center????  I recently came across a working paper that included some very senior people who are highly influential in the AAA research community (current or past I am not saying) that used that article as a reason to exclude survey research as well as field studies from a review paper they were putting together.

Yep, if you exclude all non-Americans who have a better understanding of a broader set of research methods and you exclude the principal journal that publishes that research (AOS) indeed you do get a picture of accounting research that is highly oriented to archival research with very small minorities of experimental based and analytical research.  Note also the authors excluded RAST that is the leading publisher of analytical papers. But that paints a very misleading picture of accounting research.  Further, by focusing on the recent period, you lose all the richness that was US based research in the 70s and 80s of the previous century.

Editing, you see, does matter both in the original editor’s decision not to ensure the biases in the original article were explicit but also reflects the mindset these AAA senior people (current or past) that they would use such an article to exclude papers from their review.

So there it is, a not so elegantly put argument to demonstrate that a lack of true membership in the “radical center” can affect how one views research – research not only that one is doing but spreading inaccuracies about what accounting could strive to be.

Another Example

At the AAA Audit Section mid-year meeting 2013 yet another striking illustration of what we count and measure matters in how we see our world. A senior noted professor did an analysis of what was published in the audit world from 1996 to 2012 in major accounting journals including the Audit Section journal AJPT. What journals did he consider in addition to AJPT??? TAR, JAR, CAR, JAE and RAST. TAR and CAR had both published over 100 audit related articles, JAR and JAE around 50 each and RAST had the princely number of 14 ( so much for its claim to be an “accounting” journal – Russ maybe as a Canadian based journal RAST can do better!!!). He concluded that AJPT publishing 400 + audit articles versus high 300’s for the other four combined made AJPT clearly a top producer of audit research.

BUT WHAT WAS NOT COUNTED???? AOS!!!! The number 1 journal in many parts of the world outside the USA!!! So as an empirical researcher I did a quick count in AOS for the period and stopped at 97 audit articles in 1996-2012 as I ran out of time.

WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES THIS MAKE??? 92 of the 97 were experiments, field studies and surveys and only 5 were archival. Yet 100% of the JAE articles were archival as were most of the RAST articles. Most of the JAR articles post- 2001 were archival. By excluding the journal where experiments, case studies and field research is published it not only gives the wrong impression about research methods employed but also the relative prevalence of topics studied as certain methods are better able to study certain topics – a point recognized by the speaker.

Some Signs of Success

It is great to see that the “radical center” continues to provide senior editors for all but two of the AAA section journals. BRIA and JIS have long been strongholds of diverse research with JMAR being an early convert. AJPT was a relatively late joiner but with Trotman then Knechel and with the announcement of Jeff Cohen as the next senior editor, I think we can say that AJPT is now firmly situated in the “radical center”. The appointment of Ranjini Krishnan at JMAR makes it the fifth or sixth senior editor in a row, dating back to at least Mike Shields, that situates JMAR clearly in the “Radical center”. Indeed the only major section journal not clearly in the “radical center” is JATA.

Of course, I need to note that the public interest section journal’s mission defines it out of the radical center – perfectly fine as it is an explicit choice (And very similar to JAE ‘s decision to be a niche economics based journal – we really need to get it into our heads that JAE like AOS has a mission that excludes it from being a general interest accounting journal.)

* based on CAReditorsteve’s musings about the radical centre of accounting research (MRCAR).

So if you have made it this far you should get at least a smile for your dedication.  So lets conclude this version of the Manifesto of the Radical Centre of Accounting Research with this call to arms:

“Accounting researchers of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but the chains of the ONE RIGHT WAY to do accounting research!”

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