Originality/value ' While there is anecdotal evidence of the elusive nature of accountability, this paper provides a window on conceptions of accountability employed by accounting scholars and the contexts in which accountability is discussed and researched. Further, the use of the Leximancer software tool in qualitative content analysis is demonstrated, noting that the accounting literature is currently devoid of examples of applications of this software.Purpose ' The paper has a dual purpose, being to report on an interrogation of concepts and contexts of accountability used in the accounting literature and to illustrate the application of a qualitative data analysis software tool in this interrogation. Design/methodology/approach ' A content analysis was undertaken of 114 journal articles related to accountability and published in highly ranked accounting journals from 2000 to 2007. Findings ' Accountability is a concept used in a variety of contexts, particularly in connection with public accountabilities and accountability in the public sector, as well as within social contexts. The emphasis appears to be on accountability reporting in these settings, with less concern for the management perspective. The variety of contextual usage and categorisations of the term 'accountability' indicate it has not become more precise over the period in question. Research limitations/implications ' Since only 21 accounting journals are sampled, there is scope for investigating accountability concepts across a broader base of publication outlets. The findings suggest that greater effort should be devoted to developing frameworks of accountability, researching accountability in relatively under-explored contexts and settings, and considerable scope for researchers to more frequently utilise computer-assisted qualitative data analysis in content analysis studies concerning accounting and accountability.