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Tax Research Comes in Many Flavors

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Tax research no longer conjures up images of accountants and attorneys sitting in libraries surrounded by books.

While software vendors still offer some of their products in print, most have transitioned to the Web in order to bring more timely information in a more organized fashion, allowing people to search for their research items the way they would on the Internet using Google.

"Some people really understand research, but new workers don't understand it the same way. The more mature researcher is a digital immigrant, they've moved from hard copy books to digital format," says Mike Sabbatis, president of CCH. "Content is important, but how you get those answers is equally important because they're hiring people that are experts in all things digital."

This month, CCH unveiled its newest tax research platform, Intelliconnect, which allows users to perform domain searches with keywords. CCH will migrate its Tax Research Network customers over to the new platform, starting with corporations in May and accounting firms in June. Then the old platform will cease to exist.

With TRN, customers had to select which type of information they wanted to search from various libraries, practice aids and other sources. Intelliconnect automatically selects everything the customer subscribes to and lets them narrow down their choices.

The company is considering adding transaction pricing to a future release for customers who want access to information they don't subscribe to on a case-by-case basis.

Stephen Saferight, CPA, manager at Atlanta-based HLB Gross Collins, is an Intelliconnect beta tester who believes it will appeal to his new hires.

"The new platform consolidates everything, so it's on the same screen. With TRN, you have to go back and forth between different screens," Saferight says. "It will be a lot easier for new staff to pick up. Keep using hyperlinks to find the answer, and if you can't find it, drill down on the left to the expandable and collapsible tree to find codes and explanations to dig deeper."

For example, when conducting federal tax research, they can start their search off with the Tax Research Consultant, which gives a summary and links to the codes and other documents to refine the search.

Saferight also likes the new features which allow him to work on and "tab" five projects simultaneously, save information to a tray and retrieve it later.

Intelliconnect will cut down on training because it's easy to navigate, he says.

Elaine Bennett, senior tax accountant at Houston-based Ferguson Camp Poll, has been using CCH's Tax Research Network since its inception and also beta tested Intelliconnect, which she says is much easier to navigate due to the layout.

"Accessing information that is relevant and on point is a streamlined process with the new platform primarily because users don't need to decide what libraries or other sources to select before starting a search," she says. "Users simply enter the keywords and hit go. The search time is significantly reduced as a result of its intuitive nature."

Roughly 90 percent of Intelliconnect beta testers performed the Google-like searches, according to product manager Tina Rajski.

"The No. 1 piece of information we got from customers is they want quick access to information," Rajski says. "They're used to searching this way on the Internet, so they wanted it here."

CCH isn't the only vendor that's caught on to the new school of tax research. BNA, Tax Analysts and Thomson's Checkpoint all give users the option of performing keyword searches or searching by code. But all of them, including CCH, acknowledge that many of their long-term customers have grown accustomed to searching with books. So they provide options for those who want to search the old-fashioned way.

Gary Culp, a CPA and senior manager at Birmingham, Ala.-based Snow and Associates, made the transition from the print to electronic version of BNA's Tax Management Portfolios more than five years ago, but admits he still uses "the print way" of getting to them, making use of the electronic table of contents.

A Library Filter is available for people who have been using CCH content for awhile and are comfortable searching without help.

CCH still offers reports and books in print, but most of its libraries are available online. New sales are all electronic, while print copies are renewals, according to Rajski, although she is seeing a move of renewals to the Internet.

"Law firms like to have both electronic and print, so a lot of law firms will subscribe to our print publications even though they subscribe to Intelliconnect," she says.

Tax Analysts' Worldwide Tax Treaties collection, which is popular among companies considering whether to do business in other countries, still circulate in print, DVD and online, according to Alan Highman, editor-in-chief of Reference Services.

If people want portability, they may get Web access and a DVD in case they are on an airplane or somewhere where Internet connectivity may not be dependable, Highman says.

"They're not going to buy 50 DVDs, but they'll buy 50 people Web access," he says, adding that the Federal Research Library starts at $366 while the Worldwide Tax Treaties starts at $1,199.

Thomson finds that some of its subscribers prefer to get the vendor's tax treaties in print, because the "scholarly" analysis pieces could be as large as 50 pages and could be cumbersome to read online, according to Ron Burkert, senior director of Checkpoint technology.

The PPC line of deskbooks can be found online in Checkpoint as well as interactive PPC Practice Aids, which are a part of Checkpoint Tools (formerly e-tools).

Also, customers tend to use the "Federal Tax Handbook" as a desk reference guide and supplement to tools in Checkpoint.

"If they use the RIA Federal Tax Handbook on their desk to look up a quick fact, but it turns out it's not a quick fact, when they come into Checkpoint they can select a QuickFinder handbook," Burkert says. "The selection follows the structure of the book and links with the sources to give you more information. The print services in the highest circulation supplement what's happening with Checkpoint. You'll still find them on the shelves of internal libraries and law firms."

Pros and Cons

Layton Pace, a sole tax practitioner based in Manhattan Beach, Calif., couldn't have started his own practice three years ago had he resorted to paper.

"I would have had to hire at least two people--one to do filing and other clerical functions and one to help do research," he says.

Before branching out on his own, Pace served as the working coordinator of the tax department of a mid-sized law firm with two libraries on two floors.

When he researched with books, he first would tag relevant authorities and passages and copy the pages. Then he would highlight and make notes about the authorities on the copied pages so he wouldn't lose research trails, cites and the context of the law.

"I used to take over the entire library. I had a huge table and I'd organize my books so that it was a trail--Book A led to book B led to book C led to book D. I could move them around like puzzle pieces," he says. "RIA Checkpoint gives you electronic history so your trail is footprinted and provides hyperlinks to evaluate that authority right on the spot. Also, with research online, I selectively print the relevant pages, discard those I do not need and take immediate notes on the printed pages. I don't have to send anything to the reproduction department, which would make me wait and frequently caused disruption when I got onto other projects in the interim."

Pace also cannot underestimate the power of anytime access.

"Occasionally, I would have a sleepless night because unresolved issues of research would creep up and I'd second guess myself. Now, virtually any time I can get online and make sure I read or remembered something correctly," he says. "Sometimes your best thinking happens six to eight hours after your read something--Bam the answer hits you. The ability to track something down the minute it hits you and not having to be in the office is very beneficial."

Socially Speaking

Small firm owners looking to bounce ideas off other practitioners don’t have the luxury of talking to their co-workers at the next desk.

As a result, many have turned to online discussion forums or user groups for help.
Intuit created a site to solve this problem back in 2005 called TaxAlmanac. It populated the site with IRS code, Treasury regulations and other topical areas and gave tax preparers free access to the community.

Once it created a discussion forum for more interaction between users, the site took off.

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