It used to be common in many accounting practices that the "new guy" was the one saddled with filing the weekly updates for whatever research services the firm subscribed to.
Between the premium-level subscriptions and the multiple subscriptions, this update process could encompass adding and removing hundreds of pages a week -- opening and closing numerous binders, and often taking hours to accomplish.
And that's before anyone actually started to use the service.
Researching code and analysis has come a long way since those days, largely due to the adoption of personal computers, electronic subscriptions on weekly CDs, and now the Internet.
Paper-based subscriptions still exist, and look impressive on shelves in the conference room, but in many cases they're wasteful -- wasteful of upkeep, of paper, and of time spent pouring through indices and physically having to bounce through multiple binders and services, and copying facts relevant to your research.
Many of the vendors included in this survey still provide at least some printed services, but much of these consist of books and manuals on specific topics.
On the other end of the scale, vendors are finding more and more ways to deliver research anywhere, anytime, through mobile apps that work on smartphones and tablets. CCH is a particular pioneer in this area, but it's becoming a common feature of many subscriptions, allowing accountants to research questions and find answers to client questions whenever and wherever they may happen to be.
Today, you have more choices than ever in terms of vendors, subjects, pricing and delivery method. The trick is to balance your needs against your budget.
Here are some of the major offerings from many of the leaders in the market. We have not included pricing because, for the most part, vendors offer a multitude of plans based on what services are subscribed to and how many user licenses are purchased.
Bloomberg BNA Tax & Accounting
Bloomberg BNA Tax and Accounting Center
Back in the days, BNA was known by its full name -- Bureau of National Affairs, just as CCH was originally Commerce Clearing House. It's been BNA for quite a while, and was purchased several years ago by the Bloomberg organization. While some of the other vendors provide content from multiple sources (including licensing material from BNA), BNA generates almost all of its own offerings, other than source documents produced by various government agencies.
The BNA Tax and Accounting Center consists of numerous portfolios and other research material on the federal and state level, and includes research and updates on sales and use taxes, as well as non-research applications such as fixed asset software. A variety of subscriptions are available, including single packages and series, as well as bundles.
As with other vendors, BNA offers a comprehensive set of code, regs, findings, rulings and the like that can be easily searched. Where it really shines is in timeliness and analysis. The vendor directs enormous resources into reporting the news that affects the research products that it provides. Breaking news is transmitted to subscribers almost immediately.
BNA also provides analysis and practice tools from more than 1,000 leading tax and accounting authorities and practitioners.
Many vendors offer frequent bulletins and reports. BNA's is the Daily Tax Report, with Daily Tax Realtime and TaxCore. The Daily Tax RealTime services broadcasts summaries of breaking news by e-mail as they happen, and includes the relevant full-text documents, while the Daily Tax Report gives comprehensive reporting on crucial legislative, regulatory and legal tax developments. TaxCore is s searchable database containing full-text documents from Congress, the IRS, and dozens of other sources.
With the large number of content offerings that BNA provides, it should be easy to configure a selection that precisely meets your needs.
CCH, a part of Wolters Kluwer
CCH Accounting Research Manager; CCH IntelliConnect; and CCH ProSystem fx Fast Answers
CCH is another vendor whose three-character name started out as an abbreviation. As part of publishing giant Wolters Kluwer, the three letters are now the company's name.
CCH offers several online research products. The Accounting Research Manager is geared toward researching standards. These include accounting and auditing standards, Securities and Exchange Commission rules and regulations, and government accounting standards. The service also provides interpretive publications and checklists. The Accounting Research Manager database is updated frequently throughout the day and includes Daily News, delivered by e-mail, which covers the latest accounting, auditing, international, regulatory and government news. Add-on libraries are available on a wide range of topics, including auditing, internal controls, a Fraud and Forensic Accounting Library, 10-K lookup and more.
Additionally, the Accounting Research Manager provides access to documents from numerous original sources, including the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the American Institute of CPAs, the SEC, the International Accounting Standards Board, and others, including ITT reports and SOX 404 Guide.
Where the Accounting Research Manager is targeted toward standards, IntelliConnect is oriented toward tax research. It allows you to search across a wide selection of content, including IRS Regulations Relate, Case Treatment Codes, SmartCharts for State Taxes, a similar SmartChart for Federal Income Tax Credit and Unrelated Business Income Tax, interactive tools and calculators, and the Internal Revenue Manual.
For ProSystem fx Tax Prep users, CCH provides its Fast Answers product. This allows you to search for answers without leaving the return being prepared. Fast Answers includes CCH Explanations and Tips, which gives practice tips, filled-in forms examples, and links to practice aids. For specific line explanations, there is CCH A-Line-D.
Also provided in Fast Answers are Practice Aids and Productivity Tools. Practice Aids include client letters, checklists, Excel-based worksheets, IRS forms with instructions, and more. Productivity Tools provides an interactive glossary, interactive Q&A, Elections and Statements, and other helpful applications.
Fast Answers doesn't ignore the Tax Code. The code is included, as is the well-known U.S. Master Tax Guide. For daily updates, Tax Tracker News is CCH's customizable daily news service.
Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting
Having your own sources of research and analysis content is one of the advantages of being a big fish in the research pool. Thomson Reuters certainly qualifies, having RIA, WG&L and PPC under its corporate banner. Checkpoint allows you to access content from these providers as well from other content vendors, including BNA, IBFD and EBIA. Add in primary sources including the AICPA, SEC, GAAP, FASB, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board and others, and you have access to a comprehensive research tool.
But research is only half the story. Many of the above sources also provide insightful analysis, which in many cases is even more useful than the source material. Adding to this usefulness is the tight integration between Checkpoint, Microsoft Office, and accountant-oriented CS products such as UltraTax CS.
As with the other major vendors in the industry, you can customize your subscription within topics including federal, state and local tax, international tax, estate planning, payroll, auditing, accounting, and corporate finance, as well as pension and benefits.
Having PPC as part of the Thomson Reuters family and available through Checkpoint provides access to a wide variety of practice aids, including client letters, interactive forms and checklists, and specialized financial calculators.
Practices that have research problems that stretch out over time will appreciate features such as Bill Tracker and Citation Tracker. These let you know if there's pending legislation that will amend the code or a state statute pertaining to something you are researching, or if a ruling or case is cited by a subsequent case or changed by a subsequent ruling. Using these may help prevent having to double- and triple-check research findings as your research progresses over time.
Intuit ProLine Tax Research
Don't be fooled by the name: While Intuit is known for many of the products it develops, including QuickBooks, TurboTax, ProSeries, and Lacerte, its ProLine Tax Research is an add-on to Lacerte and ProSeries tax preparation software that provides a customized version of some of BNA's tax content. Intuit doesn't try to hide this fact, labeling it "Powered by BNA."
This approach has its benefits, and its limitations. Several of the major benefits are that the research is intended to be accessed while preparing a return, so the content is very tightly integrated into the tax prep software, and the pricing on the add-on makes it very attractive.
You can purchase a seasonal subscription for $449 that allows you to use the content from April 16 through October 14. There are no limitations of the number of documents you can research per return, or the number of users in your practice that can search the material. An even more inexpensive (and limited) plan is available for $19.95 and allows up to four documents to be attached to a single return. This per-use approach is purchased through the tax software when needed. An unlimited annual subscription is available for $849 a year.
The downside of using the ProLine Tax Research is that while it does provide access to a great deal of content, it's nowhere near as comprehensive as the products available from BNA. If you can live with these limitations, and have little need to research complex tax situations, this might be the way to go for a Lacerte user.
LexisNexis Tax Center
As with many things, research services don't provide a "one size fits all" offering. LexisNexis, however, is doing its best to come close. In addition to several of its own products, the Tax Center provides access to a number of services from other vendors as well, and you can define your search so that it spans multiple services.
The LexisNexis products include Tax Advisor, which is a federal tax reporter that ties analysis with related federal Tax Code sections and tax topics. LexisNexis State Tax Practice Insights provides your practice with practical analysis of state tax codes and regulations, and points out tips and traps, as well as alerts. If you need access to information about specific companies, the LexisNexis Dossier service can deliver profiles on approximately 35 million companies, as well as on 1,000 industries.
But much of the true value of the Tax Center is that, in addition to LexisNexis' own services, it also provides access to services from other vendors, some of which are included in this roundup. Analytical material is available from BNA, CCH, Tax Analysts and Kleinrock. Matthew Bender's tax treatise collection is included in the adjunct services offered, as is Shepard's Signal, which lets you check on whether laws and administrative rulings are still valid. You can also access FASB and GASB content.
As with many of the services here, various pricing plans are available, depending on which services you wish to access, and whether you need only occasional access to some of the services.
Parker Tax Publishing
Parker Tax Pro Library
While the other research services in this roundup have been around for decades, Parker Tax Pro Library is the new kid on the block, with the company established in 2007, while the online service went live in 2011. Parker Tax Publishing isn't completely new to the ways of research, though, as it was founded by some of the principals who developed and managed Kleinrock before the company was sold to CCH.
In contrast to the other vendors, most of which also offer printed manuals and books, the Parker Tax Pro Library is comprised of 21 volumes of expert analysis and source documents, all of which are available online.
Compared to most of the other services included in this roundup, the Parker Tax Pro Library is very inexpensive at just $342 a year. This subscription allows unlimited access to the service from all of your staff, as long as only one staff member is using it at a time. Multiple simultaneous user licenses are available, and the vendor will quote the price depending on your needs.
Considering the price, PTPL provides a lot for the money. A Quick Reference Library lets you find answers to common questions, like current mileage rates, without jumping through hoops. There are updated code, regs, and key IRS publications, as well as comprehensive cases and rulings. The PTPL also provides original content, including client letters, tax election checklists, and Bob Jennings Practice Aids.
Much of the material contained in the library is available from other sources, with a fair amount free for the access, such as IRS code and other documents in the public domain. But free is a relative term. With the PTPL, you're not so much paying for original material (though the library does have a good amount of that), but for the ability to search through the material without having to go to numerous sources and either perform separate searches on each, or download huge amounts of material and figure out how to tie multiple searches together. When you factor in the original material and bi-weekly Tax Bulletin, the PTPL is an affordable alternative to simply searching the Internet.
FREE IS NICE, TOO
All of the resources in this roundup cost money. But there are excellent resources that don't cost a thing, though in many cases they won't provide answers that are as granular as you need.
Strangely enough, with all of the terrific data and analysis providers available, many accountants don't bother going directly to the source - the IRS, state and local tax authorities, and other governmental and regulatory Web sites. If you really need to get the take on a tax or accounting issue that's somewhat esoteric, you probably won't find the answers for free - just raw code. But it's worth a look, especially if you're operating on a budget.
And, if that budget is tight, as most are these days, look carefully at licensing plans. Some licenses let anyone you designate access the subscription, as long as only the amount of the "seats" in the license isn't exceeded in real time. But some licensing models are more restrictive - you have to assign named users to each of the licensed "seats." Of course, this restriction is easy to get around; you simply need to provide multiple staff members with the same user name and password. Doing this, however, is breaking the terms of the license, so you may be better off buying licenses by the "seat," rather than by the named user.
Ted Needleman writes frequently on software, hardware, and technology-related subjects, and was previously the editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.
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