At the time this is being written, President Trump and congressional leaders are promising to simplify the Tax Code. Unless he and Congress can get it down to two or three pages, there is still going to be a need for tax research.

And that’s before taking into account all of the other existing tax codes, regulations, practice aids and cases such as state, municipal, and sales taxes. It’s a pretty sure bet that the necessity for researching various tax questions isn’t going away anytime soon.

Technology continues to affect all areas of practice, including tax research. And accountants, as a profession, tend be fairly early adopters of technology. Many software functions and features, such as autofill, appeared in accounting software before becoming common and popular in other applications. Technology has also impacted the profession on the hardware side. While many practitioners still operate with desktop PCs and large-screen displays while at their desks, portability has become a paramount concern in the day-to-day operations. With laptops, tablets, and smartphones providing instant access to servers and cloud operations, “business as usual” doesn’t mean the same today as it did five years ago.

And so we present our yearly survey of the tax research field — where we are at the moment and where we are headed. To answer these questions, we surveyed four of the major vendors of tax research materials and applications.


STILL MOUNDS OF PAPER?

Pundits have been predicting the demise of paper for decades. The advent of optical media did put a dent in the paper-based services, but failed to deliver a killing blow. Today, CD and DVD services are pretty much gone, but paper remains a viable media for some practitioners and most vendors.

“Undeniably, paper-based services are still viable,” Jacob Meyer, director of business development at Tax Materials Inc., told us. “I would say the trend for accountants to conduct online tax research is growing and as technology improves more will go online to look up their answers, but accountants today love their tax research books. There’s no replacing those easy-to-use tabs and index, the touch of paper, and sometimes people just need a break from the computer screen. But I honestly believe tax research solutions will never (not in my lifetime, at least) be ‘entirely’ in the cloud. People will always want their books to a certain degree … a way to ‘escape’ the mundane computer if you will.”

George Farrah, editorial director at Bloomberg BNA, agreed: “Because of the unique nature of the BNA Tax Management Portfolios, many of our customers continue to express a desire to access them in print form. Consequently, we feel it is important to continue to provide print versions for those who still value the media.”

Wolters Kluwer and Thomson Reuters both still find paper-based services viable, though Wolters Kluwer’s director of subscriptions, Jill Weinstein, noted than many of their paper-based products are also available as e-books for those who value the paper-based layout but still want electronic convenience.

Optical media services on DVDs have not been as tenacious. Tax Materials used to offer a CD-ROM version of its TaxBook, but discontinued it last year. “It’s hard to find a laptop that even has a CD-ROM drive these days, and with all the installation roadblocks, updates and such, the cons outweighed the pros to offer that solution,” Meyer pointed out.

number of words in the tax code, in millions

Thomson Reuters still offers both formats, though it’s reducing the services it still offers on optical media. “Paper-based formats are expected to continue for the foreseeable future and the most popular print formats tend to be those used for quick reference purposes, desktop guides, treatises and journals,” said Virginia Lorenzo, senior director of Checkpoint. “While there are practitioners who prefer DVD formats, we have reduced the use of optical media for our products following a general drop in market demand as a result of broader Internet coverage, software obsolescence and consumer preferences for lighter devices.”

“At the same time,” she continued, “there is still a preference for using print formats to augment digital capabilities depending on the research purpose, such as Checkpoint’s Quickfinder handbooks and WG&L treatises and journals. We anticipate that the industry will continue to look for a combination of resources to achieve different work purposes and preferences.”


RESEARCH PROBLEMS

Much of the migration away from paper-based research services has been due to the popularity and accessibility of the cloud, and its associated search engines. Online search engines are nothing new — they’ve been available for years in various forms, from modem and dial-up telephone-line-accessible services like Lexis and Lockheed’s Dialog Information Services, to early Internet search engines like Alta Vista, but they have grown in value as the amount of information available on the Web has grown explosively, and with the introduction of Google, one of the first really effective natural-language search engines.

Our vendors were somewhat split on just how effectively natural-language search technology has advanced. Tax Materials’ Meyer was somewhat ambivalent about the matter: “I don’t believe anybody is quite there yet. Obviously, there are some with a head start, but others are close behind and we are getting there. There is so much involved with developing software that is literally trying to read someone’s mind. I believe, just like humans, this technology will never stop evolving.”

He also pointed out that understanding the constraints of the search on the part of the researcher is of great importance. “If the accountant researching the tax question doesn’t have at least a general understanding of the topic they are researching, then it would be really hard for a technology to predict what they are looking for and in turn come up with reliable answers.”


RESEARCH ON THE MOVE

Mobility is another trend our respondents were positive about. “We understand that mobile access is important and we provide mobile apps that allow for searching as well as the added benefit of storing and viewing offline,” Bloomberg BNA’s Farrah said. “We also build our Web products so their presentation on all devices is optimal. We know our clients use mobile access in both client and non-client situations.” At the same time, Farrah noted, “We find that the majority of mobile access for our products is for the consumption of news. Our research indicates that complex, in-depth tax research is mostly still performed on desktops.”

That’s true with Thomson Reuters, according to Lorenzo: “We’re finding the most compelling use cases for mobile access have less to do with performing research in the traditional sense on a mobile device (for example, word searching), but rather performing fast look-ups to get frequently needed but sometimes hard-to-remember information, such as rates, exclusions, deduction and credit limitations, exemption amounts, etc.),” she said. “There’s a difference in the perceived value of an answer by both client and advisor depending on the purpose for the question. Where more complex research is needed, both advisor and client want the most thorough answer as quickly as possible, which doesn’t mean answering all questions on the fly. Also, the screen real estate of mobile devices is a logical limiting factor for supporting more complex and multi-faceted tax research questions. “

Wolters Kluwer’s Weinstein makes another good point for mobility: “Tax professionals need to answer their client’s questions fast. Many clients expect immediate responses to their concerns, even if that means the response would be a phone call, text or e-mail. Mobility drives value for professionals because they now have many answers at their fingertips at any time. For those questions that a client may expect a quick answer, mobile tax research can appropriately address these questions. Additionally, having this mobile connectivity with your clients allows the professional to interact with more than just a face-to-face meeting. A quick picture of a receipt or a notice can help a professional rapidly provide invaluable guidance on their individual needs.”


LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

While it’s never possible to predict the future with complete certainty, technology that’s developing in the present will certainly have an impact. Two of the most obvious areas that will impact the future are artificial/machine intelligence, and voice input and assistance. Both are starting to appear in applications at the current time, though not every vendor believes that both are overly important.

“AI has a long way to go with influencing tax research solutions. We are always looking for ways to improve our tax research offerings, and as intriguing as AI can be, we just have other areas that need to be prioritized,” Tax Materials’ Meyer said. But he was much more positive about voice assistance: “Voice assistance goes hand-in-hand when researching anything online. Voice search is trending at an extremely high rate and this is of high priority.”

Wolters Kluwer’s Weinstein was more positive about both technologies: “In the past few years, we’ve seen a great and exciting influx in AI/machine learning in our industry. Like all areas in business, tax research needs to use every emerging technology to meet the demands of tax professionals,” she said. “Natural language search capabilities are central to a modern tax research service, and professionals expect a tax research service to act like every other search engine they use on a daily basis. One of the key advantages to our new tax research product, CCH AnswerConnect, has been our new question-and-answer functionality. Just like Google, you can ask a common question and get a quick answer with links to deeper, more comprehensive material. Using machine learning techniques, Wolters Kluwer has developed this fully functioning natural language algorithm that takes into account the most common questions and provides answers before the practitioner has even run their search. We’ll continue to see similar advancements in the industry over the next few years where we continue to develop this technology to get better answers faster.”

She was equally positive about voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa: “As voice assistants move from the home into the workplace, they are beginning to provide a potentially helpful service in conducting tax research. Connecting AI/machine learning with voice-activation is a natural progression.”

Thomson Reuter’s Lorenzo was also upbeat about AI/machine learning. “Thomson Reuters Checkpoint has incorporated machine learning into its search algorithms to improve research speed, accuracy and overall effectiveness,” she said. “Checkpoint has also regularly introduced innovative new tools that guide users to better answers more quickly and automate otherwise time-consuming research tasks.”

Bloomberg’s Farrah was more cautious: “We have focused our development efforts to make searching simple and easy and to deliver the most relevant and reliable results through tax-specific search suggestions as well as an automatic function to true up the search string with alternative terms to include all variations of a topic. This greatly streamlines the search experience and delivers comprehensive results on the first attempt. Natural language is still evolving in tax-specific research. We continue to leverage new approaches as they prove to be effective in moving the performance needle forward and we continue to explore ways to give users flexibility in search options including natural-language search.”

Not every observation about the future was positive. Tax Materials’ Meyer brought up a concern: “Tradeshow attendance and tax societies/organizations are losing popularity. Younger accountants don’t seem to see the importance of attending tax conferences and joining tax organizations, which is very concerning for the tax industry as a whole. The importance of joining and becoming a member of leading tax organizations, such as the National Association of Tax Professionals, needs to be recognized by younger generations. The value of networking your tax practice, making important contacts and learning about new trends and updates by attending tax conferences held by these types of organizations is incredibly important.”

And that’s a valuable reminder that as important as technology is in tax research and practice, we can’t afford to overlook that at the end of the day, the results of any research are still going to require knowledge and experience on the part of the researcher to have significant value.

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Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman has been covering technology for more than 30 years, writing frequently on software, hardware, and related subjects. He was previously editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.