Musings on Accounting Research by Steve

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Order and accounting writing

Back in the day when there were lots of experimental economics papers in accounting – an unfortunately dying breed of papers it seems – there was an interesting order of presentation of the experiments.

Motivation or grand issue – description of the experimental setting and what the various features represented – a theory section that made both point predictions (that rarely worked) and directional predictions (that often worked – at least in published papers) – results – supplemental results and conclusions.

I think that most good interpretive work would do well to follow this approach, especially when grand concerns lead the researcher into the field, not specific theorizing ex ante.  My suggested ordering:

The global concerns and what motivates that concern – a description of the case or field setting (rich enough so that nothing new needs to be added later in the paper – just more depth) – a section introducing the theory that will allow the case setting to be analyzed/interpreted – a description of the research methods if not done in the descriptive section –  an analytical section where theory is used as an interpretive lens and a discussion section that draws us back to the global concern that motivated the work.

I think too many interpretive researchers are falling into the trap of writing as if they were positivists – concern, theory, methods, case, analytical and discussion.  It makes no sense to have an up front theory section in a paper where the theory followed the emprics.  Nothing wrong with that if theory did guide the emprics – but that is relatively rare or so I am told by my interpretivists’ friends (which may decline in number after they read this analogy).

Retrofitting theory in qualitative research

In qualitative research the goal of going into the field is often to gain a deeper understanding of what actors and systems in the field actually do and mean through the eyes of the actors.  Sometimes one enters the field with a well developed theory in mind, some times one has multiple potential theories at ready and the third results in a theory being developed on the basis of field observations (a neo-grounded theory approach).

I worry about research that is then written up as if the theory was present all along.  Only in the first case is that approach appropriate.  Otherwise one is engaging in writing creative fiction.  Editors and reviewers who insist that the paper must be written with the theory being presented as if it guided the research is intellectually dishonest.  However, an author does not have to “die on this hill” but ensure that the discerning reader understands how the theoretical perspective was born in the research process.

“it’s in the paper” is not an answer

Again in my trip to Europe I noticed a lot of younger scholars answering questions with “it’s in the paper.”  I was not clear whether it was a language barrier of not understanding the question, not being able to formulate an answer to an unexpected question on the fly (due to language or other barriers) or not understanding the purpose of a conference presentation and a Q&A.

Let me be clear, “it is in the paper” is NOT an appropriate answer to any question.  The response should be either to seek further understanding of the question if it is not clear or understood OR a brief explanation/answer with the invitation to find further details in the paper and/or ask the participant to ask a followup question to narrow down the focus of the question further.


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