My corona moment

Posted by Thorsten Sellhorn - Jun 08, 2020


2020 has been special; for you too, I am sure. When last we met at the Paphos Congress, the EAA was humming along nicely. But with the corona situation now affecting us all, the EAA is not exempt. I took up these issues in my message to members in the June 2020 EAA Newsletter. My heartfelt thanks go out to many, as our EAA community has risen to the occasion in what for me was a truly inspiring way.  

Although we at the EAA are fast expanding our focus on education and teaching, please let me now share my own personal ‘corona moment’, which is mainly about research.

Much has been written, for many years, about a growing ‘research-practice gap’ in accounting, a tendency to worry more about getting published than about supporting practice. In the words of Bob Kaplan, one of the giants of our field, ‘scholars underinvest in research about practice innovations because such research is viewed as unpublishable in top-5 journals.’

Corona shone a fresh light for me on these issues. I realized the new respect that science is now enjoying. Take virologists, who are literally harassed by politicians to provide new evidence and guidance on the corona virus. How is their research different from ours? To me at least, it seems like the ‘big questions’ and their societal relevance are crystal clear. Researchers have the needs of practitioners and society at large firmly in mind – who in turn perceive their research as important. Teams collaborate across institutions, share data and insights, and apply a wide range of methods – all contributing to finding answers, like building a mosaic. People realize that insights are always preliminary and emergent, with findings being re-investigated in numerous reproductions and replications – to make sure they are indeed reliable. Because bad things may happen if they are not.

Clearly, virologists and accounting researchers are apples and oranges, worlds apart in many ways. Most of us don’t investigate matters of life and death, by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps our big questions are simply less important? Also, many believe that social scientists like us should not act as if there were general cause-effect relations ‘out there’ for us to discover empirically, that technocrats could then use to design effective means-end relations in the spirit of Richard Mattessich’s conditional-normative accounting methodology (CoNAM). Still, I cannot help but wonder: Where are the politicians calling us because they can’t wait to see our latest insights, which they need for their decisions? Wouldn’t it be satisfying for us to work on questions with clear implications for improving society, so that even our kids can be made to see the value in mom’s or dad’s recent paper?

Of course, all of us need not start writing ‘corona papers’ now. But three thoughts may be worth considering. First, why not invest (some of) our collective research acumen in helping address firms’, investors’, and wider society’s immediate corona-related challenges? For example, corona created immense uncertainty, affecting firms very differently. Transparency is now called for to sort this out. How can firms (be made to) provide this much-needed transparency? What is the best way to communicate uncertainty? Perhaps the steady diet of corona-related data, flattened curves, and fast-changing scenario forecasts has made society more familiar with probability distributions, expected values, and confidence intervals. Assumptions that are subject to uncertainty and change may no longer be viewed as suspicious. This may be the time for firms to embrace ways of transparently explicating uncertainty – by reporting scenarios, sensitivity analyses, or even full-blown Monte Carlo simulations – and perhaps make markets more informationally ‘mature’ and efficient in the process. These and other questions underlie the covid-19 research insights of the German TRR 266 Accounting for Transparency. Personally, I find research motivated by a desire to ease the corona fallout more satisfying than focusing on ways to exploit corona as an exogenous shock that helps with causal identification in some unrelated area.

Second, many expect that some of the corona-induced changes will last, or even keep evolving, long after the acute crisis will have passed. Stakeholders may insist that what firms are now demonstrating they are capable of (e.g., home office arrangements, remote audits, or online shareholders’ meetings) should be maintained after the crisis. (We, too, should expect our students to demand that we keep making those videos!) In other words, will corona turn out to be a major exogenous catalyst and accelerator of new trends – positive and negative – in accounting? If so, can we as researchers help understand, predict, and shape these trends?

And third, all of us are having careers and, clearly, publishing is an important part of ‘the game’. But this casual term ‘game’, that we have allowed ourselves to get used to, is disconcerting. In a (competitive) game, we may start paying too much attention to the score. Some of us lucky ones are in that sweet spot where we work on research that we’re good at, that gets published in good journals, and that we consider meaningful. But I suspect that many of the untenured faculty among us – that part of our community that the EAA has always focused on supporting – may not feel that lucky. Instead, they may feel an immense pressure to publish – or perish. Working primarily for that extrinsic reward – the next publication – can feel shallow and stressful. It invites unhealthy tendencies to compare ourselves with others (and there is always someone more ‘productive’ out there). It denies that each and every one of us has something unique and valuable to contribute to our field.

For the tenured academics among us: Why not try and forget about our publication records, and start focusing primarily on trying to improve practice and society at large? I see at least three good reasons: First, because it makes us happier. We all feel immense joy, flow, and a sense of purpose when working on a research question that we consider important for reasons other than getting a publication out of it. And research we enjoy doing will tend to be better research. Academic careers could be (self-) evaluated against the question, ‘What did this person (I) do for society?’, rather than, ‘How many citations did their (my) work generate?’

Second, there are ‘hard’ economic reasons. As a journal editor, I keep seeing (more and more, it seems) manuscripts – written by smart and hard-working people, mind you – that leave me scratching my head about Bill Kinney’s second question, ‘Why is this an important research question, and to whom?’ Some of these manuscripts are technically superb, but seem strangely sterile and disinterested in the accounting phenomenon under study – if not downright nonsensical. Some address questions that no practitioner who I’ve ever met would care about. And that is not just because they don’t understand our scientific genius. Interacting with doctoral students, I keep hearing (more and more, it seems) about exogenous shocks, ‘cool’ identification strategies, and a desire to ‘do something with big data and Python’. But less and less often do I find myself impressed by how someone is on fire about a substantive issue, an empirical puzzle, or a pressing practice problem. Do we care too much about how we do empirical tests, and too little about the substantive issues we investigate? How long can we afford to keep doing things in this way? With corona wreaking havoc on academic institutions’ and government’s finances, research without a ‘real impact’ on society that we can explain – at least in terms of long-term potential – may end up facing drying-up funds. All the more reason to combine the useful with the enjoyable, and start caring.

And third, this may render academia more attractive again. The young people now embarking upon their careers, the corona and climate crises firmly in mind, may be looking for purpose, meaning, and a chance to contribute to society more than any generation before them. I find it painful to even consider how many bright minds have shied away from pursuing academic careers because they worried about the grueling tenure process – having to perform in a high-stakes, winner-takes-all publishing game with little regard for one’s true passions. And the game may be rigged, too. Several recent scandals have uncovered manipulated research results in published papers in accounting and elsewhere. You all know what I am talking about. In a recent webinar, Jim Ohlson, another giant of accounting thought, effectively argues that many accounting scholars do not care whether published results are correct. It wouldn’t surprise me if untenured academics were to turn cynical about research. They may view pursuing research imbued with personal meaning and purpose as a distant dream – a utopia inhabited by the tenured. This is something that we cannot allow to continue! If the ‘gatekeepers’ among us – the reviewers, editors, department chairs and recruiting and tenure committee members – if we were to re-think the performance measures we use to assess young academics and the research they do, much could be gained. We may be able to tap into new pools of brilliant, creative Ph.D. candidates and junior researchers, attract more non-academic funds, and be prouder overall of our achievements as a community.

I wish you all the best – happy to hear your thoughts!

Thorsten Sellhorn, President EAA