Why Accounting Research Must Change

The future of accounting programs depends on whether they design more flexible doctoral programs and adopt more realistic standards for promotion and tenure.
Why Accounting Research Must Change

MANY OF TODAY'S JUNIOR accounting faculty are being set up for failure. To earn tenure, they typically must publish three to five articles in a limited number of elite academic journals over a five-year probationary period—journals with incredibly low acceptance rates. This standard isn’t just unrealistic—it promotes an unproductive environment for faculty and an unsustainable economic model for the accounting programs themselves.

We believe the current standards for accounting faculty also have serious implications for the future of accounting doctoral education. By focusing on only a handful of academic journals, programs encourage scholarship with little relevance to accounting practice, which in turn feeds the perception among practitioners that accounting research has little relevance. This view discourages many talented candidates from pursuing accounting doctoral degrees, and it exacerbates the growing shortage of doctoral accounting faculty.

For these reasons, it’s imperative that accounting programs change their cultures in two ways. First, they must begin to value and reward a broader range of faculty scholarship. And, second, they must change the perception that doctoral study in accounting produces research with little impact on accounting practice.

The Wrong Incentives

Under existing academic incentive systems, the accounting faculty who reap the greatest rewards publish in only a handful of journals: The Accounting Review, Journal of Accounting Research, Journal of Accounting & Economics, Contemporary Accounting Research, Review of Accounting Studies, and Accounting, Organizations & Society. Such a limited sphere of publication results in a closed system, where accounting faculty rarely consult with practicing accountants about which research questions to investigate, which research methods to use, or how and where to disseminate research findings.

Harvard Business School professor Robert Kaplan discusses this problem in his 2019 article in Accounting Horizons, “Reverse the Curse of the Top-5.” Current incentives for faculty, he writes, “lead to most accounting scholars striving to write papers that can be accepted in a top-5 journal but ending up producing research that is neither fundamental nor useful.”

Even worse, these journals place special preference on papers that focus on archival financial research methods and data, or the statistical analyses of historical accounting data. There’s a paucity of articles in the areas of tax, systems, and management, which often have greater relevancy to accounting practice.

We propose that schools and faculty reverse this trend by publishing research that is both fundamental and useful—by publishing both applied and basic research that also meets rigorous peer review standards. We think there are three ways, in particular, that accounting programs can encourage their faculty to link their scholarly output to accounting practice:

Adopt broader definitions of journal quality. We call on accounting programs to expand their excessively strict definition of what counts as a quality journal. In promotion and tenure considerations, they should look beyond the top five accounting journals to other high-quality American Accounting Association journals. Auditing: A Journal of Practice & Theory, Journal of Management Accounting Research, Journal of the American Taxation Association, and Behavioral Research in Accounting are just a few examples.

Our recommendation is consistent with the findings of the AACSB International Impact of Research Task Force’s final report published in 2008. In it, the task force encourages faculty at business schools to produce both scholarly and practical research.

If accounting programs fail to take this step, we predict that the status accorded academic research in accounting will diminish, as more junior faculty fail to meet increasingly unrealistic tenure standards. Likewise, the demand for accounting faculty who focus only on publishing in elite journals may diminish as schools receive less funding from state governments.

Recognize a wider range of contributions. In its 2012 report “Charting a National Strategy for the Next Generation of Accountants,” the Pathway Commission points to the need for “a better balance in recognizing faculty contributions” beyond research. A joint effort of the American Accounting Association and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Pathway Commission recommends that accounting education also reward teaching and service as critical components of the institution’s mission.

There is anecdotal evidence that some research-intensive institutions make only minimal effort to reward teaching effectiveness. To gain tenure, faculty’s research is what counts most—their teaching need be only adequate. But mediocre instruction does not serve the accounting profession. For that reason, we believe that accounting programs should place far greater importance on effective instruction in the tenure process.

Reform accounting doctoral education. In his 2011 article in The Accounting Review, Accounting Scholarship That Advances Professional Knowledge and Practice,” Kaplan argues that reform is needed in doctoral education and training. This view aligns with the Pathways Commission report, which states that accounting programs must “develop mechanisms to meet future demand for faculty by unlocking doctoral education via flexible pedagogies in existing programs, and by exploring alternative pathways to terminal degrees that align with institutional missions and accounting education and research goals.”

In other words, not every accounting PhD has the aspiration or the capacity to publish articles in elite journals. Thus, we need to provide more paths to terminal degrees, such as executive doctorates or clinical faculty positions, to better serve the profession.

Addressing the Shortage

If accounting programs do not make these changes, the shortage of doctorally qualified faculty will only grow more acute. Scholars have repeatedly sounded the alarm about this problem. Timothy Fogerty and Anthony Holder raise the issue in their 2012 article in Issues in Accounting Education, Exploring Accounting Doctoral Program Decline: Variation and the Search for Antecedents.” R. David Plumlee and Philip Reckers do the same in their 2014 article in Accounting Horizons, Lessons Not Learned: Why is There Still a Crisis-Level Shortage of Accounting Ph.D.s?” These scholars draw attention to the fact that fewer and fewer successful accounting practitioners wish to forgo their six-figure salaries to spend five years in doctoral programs that focus on producing research with little purpose beyond publication.

Those who do make this sacrifice might not even complete their programs, whether because they are deterred by the difficulty involved or disillusioned by the gap between accounting research and accounting practice. Among those who actually complete their doctorates, most are likely to fail to earn tenure, even after all of their efforts.

Douglas Boyle, Brian Carpenter, and Dana Hermanson address this issue in “The Accounting Faculty Shortage: Causes and Contemporary Solutions,” an article that appeared in Accounting Horizons in 2015. The co-authors suggest that one means of reducing the shortage of accounting doctorates is to create more flexible, less stressful programs that would allow accounting practitioners to pursue doctoral degrees without having to leave the workforce. However, in their survey of more than 800 accounting faculty and administrators, they found only moderate support for such flexible doctoral programs.

Ending the Cycle

The bottom line: Current standards for promotion and tenure are untenable. They exacerbate the shortage of accounting PhD graduates, fail to improve accounting practice, and create unproductive research environments.

Faculty can be understandably disillusioned to be denied tenure after investing so much in their educations. In response, many do just enough research to qualify for positions at other institutions—or they forgo academic research entirely. The institution then must replace these faculty with new entry-level hires with even less experience at even higher salaries. Because tenure standards at these programs are growing only more rigorous, most of those new faculty eventually will also be denied tenure, continuing the vicious cycle.

But accounting programs have it in their power to stop this cycle. They can broaden their definition of journal quality, expand their promotion and tenure standards, and design more flexible doctoral programs. By continuing to adhere to unrealistic publication standards, programs threaten their own long-term survival. Even worse, they fail to fulfill their primary purpose—providing relevant research that benefits accounting practice.


Mark C. Dawkins is the dean and a professor of accounting at the University of North Florida’s Coggin College of Business in Jacksonville.


Michael Dugan


Michael T. Dugan is the Peter S. Knox III Distinguished Chair of Accounting at Augusta University’s Knox School of Accountancy in Georgia.