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Business Ethics: A European Review

Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008

Is disclosure the right way to


comply with stakeholders? The
Shell case
Esther Ortiz Martinez and David Crowthern
This paper is part of an ongoing research project and builds upon a previous one in which we explain the
failure of the Agency Theory through the Shell case. In that, we analysed the behaviour of Shell
managers, who reclassied oil reserves, playing with the share price because they owned share options.
This previous paper established an important literature framework that is continued and organized
to go deeper into our analysis in this paper. The goal here is to show that the way that is supposed to be
the right tool to inform stakeholders disclosure is not enough, and even in the Shell case, no
one would have noticed the problems with the oil reserves through the mere analysis of the company
disclosure during the strange period (19982003). The methodology used in this paper is lexical
analysis, which seems to be an innovative and effective approach to the analysis of Corporate
Social Disclosure, given the un-codied nature of the latter. The conclusions obtained highlight the
problem of lack of transparency in the contents of corporate social disclosure: some rms avoid
communicating crucial contents, some others twist the results in order to camouage advantages to
shareholders or managers. If it is like this for disclosing rms, what is happening in the case of nondisclosing rms?

Introduction
Corporations quite naturally present their activities, and the ensuing results, in the best possible
way when producing their annual reports (see
Crowther 2002) and this applies as much to their
social and environmental performance as it does
to their nancial performance. This is completely
in accordance with accepted practice, and in the
nancial arena it is only when these norms are
transgressed that accusations of creative accounting can be heard. The situation is much less clear
as far as social and environmental performance
are concerned, as there are virtually no norms that
Respectively, Professor in the Accounting and Finance Department
of the University of Murcia, Spain, but currently on secondment as
Directora General de Econom a y Planicacion of the Murcia
Regional Government; and Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility at De Monfort University, Leicester, UK.

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Journal compilation r 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road,
Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main St, Malden, MA 02148, USA

can be transgressed. Consequently it is more


difcult to evaluate performance, as reported,
along these dimensions and much easier for the
charge of window dressing to be made without
either evidence or the possibility of refutation.
This means that claims can be and are made
without much evidence and it is difcult to
distinguish actual performance from the semiotic
created according to the already established
prejudice of the reader.
A growing number of writers over the last
quarter of a century have recognised that the
activities of an organisation impact upon the
external environment and have suggested that
such an organisation should therefore be accountable to a wider audience than simply its shareholders. Such a suggestion probably rst arose in
the 1970s1 and a concern with a wider view of
company performance is taken by some writers

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Business Ethics: A European Review


Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008

who evince concern with the social performance


of a business, as a member of society at large. This
concern was stated by Ackerman (1975) who
argued that big business was recognising the need
to adapt to a new social climate of community
accountability, but that the orientation of business to nancial results was inhibiting social
responsiveness. McDonald & Puxty (1979), on
the other hand, maintain that companies are no
longer the instruments of shareholders alone but
exist within society and so therefore have responsibilities to that society, and that there is therefore
a shift towards the greater accountability of
companies to all participants. Implicit in this
concern with the effects of the actions of an
organisation on its external environment is the
recognition that it is not just the owners of the
organisation who have a concern with the
activities of that organisation. Additionally there
are a wide variety of other stakeholders who
justiably have a concern with those activities and
are affected by those activities. Those other
stakeholders have not just an interest in the
activities of the rm but also a degree of inuence
over the shaping of those activities. This inuence
is so signicant that it can be argued that the
power and inuence of these stakeholders is such
that it amounts to quasi-ownership of the
organisation. Indeed, Gray et al. (1987) challenge
the traditional role of accounting in reporting
results and consider that, rather than an ownership approach to accountability, a stakeholder
approach, recognising the wide stakeholder community, is needed.2 Moreover, Rubenstein (1992)
goes further and argues that there is a need for a
new social contract between a business and its
stakeholders.
This paper is intended to be a further part of an
ongoing research project into corporate reporting
and builds upon a previous one in which we
explain the failure of Agency Theory through the
Shell case (Crowther & Ortiz Martinez 2006). This
is because Agency Theory explains other kinds of
remuneration, such as share options, arguing that
this will align the interests of the managers of a
corporation with those of its owners. We analyse
the behaviour of Shell managers, who reclassied
oil reserves, playing with the share prices because

14

they owned share options. This is why we argue


that the simplest model of Agency Theory is
defunct, and we have to assume the addition of
more principals and more agents, which makes a
more complex model. Going deeper into our
analysis in this paper, we want to show that the
way that is supposed to be the right tool to inform
stakeholders disclosure is not enough and even
in the case of Shell, no one would have noticed the
problems with the oil reserves through the mere
analysis of the company disclosure during this
strange period, when reserves were misreported
and subsequently reclassied.
The main hypothesis in this paper is that there
is no important change from 1998 to 2003
in Shells disclosure, although during this period
there were hidden oil reserves and the trend
was to reward managers and directors with
shares and options. To prove it we have structured this paper as follows: in the rst part
the theoretical frameworks that have been used
as the basis of this paper are described, followed
by the methodology and the sample analysed.
The application to the sample of this background
and the methodology has driven us to the data
ndings, which have allowed us to draw some
important conclusions and implications that are
developed in the last part of this paper.

Theoretical frameworks
There are three main streams of theoretical
framework on which this paper is based. The rst
one stems from the previous paper we have
referred to.3 Our argument there was that Agency
Theory suggests that the management of an
organisation is undertaken on behalf of the
owners of that organisation, in other words the
shareholders. Consequently, the management of
value created by the organisation is only pertinent
insofar as that value accrues to the shareholders
of the rm. Implicit within this view of the
management of the rm, as espoused by Rappaport (1986) and Stewart (1991) among many
others, is that society at large, and consequently
all other stakeholders in the organisation, will also
benet as a result of managing the performance of
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Journal compilation r 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Business Ethics: A European Review


Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008

the organisation in this manner. From this


perspective, therefore, the concerns are focused
upon how to manage performance for the shareholders and how to report upon that performance
(Myners 1998).
Secondly, the background of many similar
studies has focused on the particular aspect of
disclosure to stakeholders. Disclosure is considered to be the tool that companies use to highlight
their achievements in the social arena, or to try
to prove that they cope with all the goals of
the company, not only that of providing an
ever increasing dividend stream as prot
continues to increase. The majority of these
studies examine the way that the characteristics
of disclosure are sometimes shaped depending
on the kind of report and on factors such as
country, industry or size. The previous research
on disclosure has dealt with such things as
the measurement method, the choice of the
statistical tool, the type of voluntary disclosure,
or some kind of bias among others, because the
concept of disclosure is not homogeneous and
includes all the information primarily issued
outside the nancial statements and not explicitly
required by any generally accepted accounting
principle (GAAP) or rule. Despite all these
handicaps two different effects have been
identied in the literature: size effect and
exchange effect (Atiase 1987). The empirical
results indicate that size is positively associated
with disclosure. Agency Theory shows that a
company has to satisfy the needs of creditors
and investors and so may provide more detail in
its disclosure in order to avoid information
asymmetries (Jensen & Meckling 1976). As far
as political costs are concerned, then, bigger
companies will be more in the public eye, which
will tend to make them exhibit greater disclosure
than other, smaller rms (Giner 1995). To operate
in some industries requires even more disclosure
because their activities are of keen current
interest, such as environmentally unfriendly
activities, highly risky new technology industries,
and so on. Nevertheless much of the previous
work on disclosure has been concerned with
demonstrating that this is less than adequate
because it is incomplete. We would argue that
r 2008 The Authors
Journal compilation r 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

disclosure is always less than complete and that


this kind of argument is spurious: it is always
possible to develop disclosure or to present
information from a slightly different perspective.
Our argument here is instead concerned with
intention regarding the disclosure that is made.
If we consider the company Shell the vehicle
of exploration for this research then we see that
the company complies with all the features
of a company which increases disclosure because
of its size, due to all the previously demonstrated
arguments, and the kind of activities undertaken
by the company. As far as listing status is
concerned then the a priori hypothesis suggests
that those companies which are listed disclose
more information because of the extra disclosures
contained in the listing requirements; those
companies which are multi-listed will disclose
more information than those listed on one
exchange; and those which have foreign investors
(which list on a foreign stock exchange) will have
to satisfy their information needs with more
disclosure (Cooke 1989, Depoers 2000, Street &
Bryant 2000). Shell is a multi-listed company, and
internationally listed, and therefore issues information to comply with the informative needs of
many different possible investors.
Specically, in the area of corporate social
disclosure there have been numerous studies
which use as their main source the examination
of the annual report (e.g. Singh & Ahuja 1983,
Andrew et al. 1989, Lynn 1992, Savage 1994,
Gray et al. 1995a, b, Kreuze et al. 1996, Nafez &
Naser 2000). All the main previous studies use
content analysis or disclosure indices to measure
the extent of disclosure or to discover if there is a
relationship between disclosure and other variables. In this paper, the analysis performed on the
disclosure is lexical analysis, because we consider
that this is the best way to reach the main goals
proposed in the paper. For this reason, the third
theoretical framework is related to the methodology, to lexical analysis.
The use of lexical analysis has been broad but
we have no knowledge of its use in the eld of
Corporate Disclosure and hence in the eld of
Corporate Social Disclosure. The theoretical
background is wide; the most extensive studies

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Business Ethics: A European Review


Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008

employing Lexico as the tool to do the analysis


are the ones written by Becue (1988) and Salem
(1984, 1987, 1993).

Methodology
Lexical analysis
In order to try to analyse the extent of Shells
disclosure we have to use some kind of statistical
methodology which allows us to compare such
disclosure over a period of time, and to obtain the
main characteristics of a corpus from year to year.
The tool that complies with all these requirements
is the Lexico software, and specically the Lexico3
program (http://www.cavi.univparis3.fr). The Lexico series is unique in that it allows the user to
maintain control over the entire lexicometric
process, from initial segmentation to the publication of nal results. The units that are then counted
automatically originate entirely from the list of
delimiters provided by the user, with no need for
outside dictionary resources. Beyond the identication of graphical forms, the software allows for
the study of the distribution of more complex units
composed of form sequences: repeated segments,
pairs of forms in relation of co-occurrence, among
others, which are generally less ambiguous in terms
of content than the graphical forms that make
them up. This methodology seems to be an
innovative and effective approach to the analysis
of Corporate Social Disclosure, given the uncodied nature of the latter, because it allows us to
analyse the disclosure from a statistical point of
view, mixing statistical and lexical analysis (Muller
1977). Nowadays, the important development of
the computer has made textual statistical analysis
one of the most important research elds of
modern statistics (Lebart et al. 2000).
Analysed disclosure: the sample
The rst step necessary to use Lexico3 is to
have a text; in our case, the detailed study of
the disclosure should show if there was any
important change during the period of hidden
reserves and share rewards to managers, or even,
if the disclosure follows the same trend without
giving any evidence of anything. Thus we have

16

used for our analysis of disclosure the text which


was issued by Shell in its Form 20-F. The
commonly used Shell name includes The Royal
Dutch/Shell Group of companies. This is an
important global player listed on the New York
Stock Exchange (NYSE), among others, and
as such is one of the biggest multinationals
around the world. In order to choose the
disclosure to study, we decided to obtain the
Form 20-F issued by the company, because it is
the Annual Report required by the United States
Securities and Exchange Commission for foreign
private issuers.
Bearing in mind that the main hypothesis to
prove is that there is no important change from
1998 to 2003 in the nature of Shells disclosure,
although during this period there were hidden oil
reserves and the trend was to reward managers
and directors with shares and options, we downloaded Shell Forms 20-F from 1998 to 2003. To
study this form is to study the most international
disclosure issued by the company, and at the same
time to study disclosure that complies with the
legal requirements of arguably the most developed
capital market in the world. So, whatever important information is issued by the company must be
included in this kind of Annual Report. But this
Form 20-F includes not only disclosure, but also
the company nancial statements.4 For this reason
we removed from the six Forms 20-F the nancial
statements and took only all the other disclosure.
This information was pasted into six Word les,
one for each analysed year, in order to include all
of them in a .txt le correlatively organised
according to the year. This .txt le, with all the
disclosure included in the Shell Form 20-F from
1998 to 2003, is the corpus on which we based our
study; it allows us to study the whole text and then
to separate it depending on the year to prove the
main hypothesis which supports that, from 1998 to
2003, there was no signicant change in the nature
of Shells disclosure.

Data findings
Firstly, Lexico3 shows the principal characteristics of the analysed text, in this case disclosure
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Business Ethics: A European Review


Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008
......................................................................................................................................

Table 1: Principal characteristics of the analysed disclosure


Words

1998
1999
2000
2001
2002
2003
Corpus

4057
4105
4596
4572
5387
5632
28,349

Hapax (Word that


only appears once
in the text)
1754
1734
1905
1884
2088
2217
1483

Frequency of the word


with the maximum
frequency
1593
1840
2308
2458
3648
4245
16,092

Word with the


maximum frequency
The
The
The
The
The
The
The

......................................................................................................................................

issued in Form 20-F. These main features are


shown in Table 1, in which it can be seen that
28,349 words have been analysed and that from
1998 to 2003 there was an increase in the
amount of information disclosed (by 40%), as
counted by the number of words included.
Perhaps it can be interpreted that Shell made a
bigger effort from year to year in giving more
information in order to comply with the
transparency principle or at least to give this
appearance.
One of the more important tools provided for
statistical analysis of texts is the analysis of
characteristic elements, because it allows an
evaluation of the frequency of each of the textual
units in each part of the corpus. The characteristic
element index is calculated for all the words with a
frequency of more than 10, with a probability
threshold set at 5%. The characteristic element
diagnostic contains two indications:
(a) the sign (1 or ) indicating an over- or underuse in the selected part in comparison to the
whole corpus.
(b) the quantity, which indicates the degree of
signicance of the different use, so a bigger
absolute number indicates that the word is
more over- or under-used in one part of the
corpus than in others.
In Table 2 are included the characteristic elements
of each part of the corpus, which means that we
can see the evolution in the over- or under-use of
important words.
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Journal compilation r 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

In determining the contents of Table 2, we have


selected words that might be expected to appear
with some frequency and which are pertinent to
our research. Thus it is important to highlight that
there are important words that have clearly to do
with our main hypothesis examples being such
words as reserves and shares.
Here we can see that the use of the word
reserves is signicant in that it is under-used in a
really important way from 1998 to 2001, having
the biggest absolute characteristic element index
obtained in these years. The trend changes
radically in 2002 and 2003, when the word
reserves is over-used compared with other
words. In 2003 the over-use of the word reserves
in the disclosure is double that of the second most
over-used word (the word restatement).
The evolution of the use of the word shares is
similar, although not as marked as the changes in
the word reserves. The change from under-use to
over-use matters two years earlier than in the case
of the word reserves. During 1998 and 1999 Shell
under-used the word shares and then in the 2000
and 2001 over-used it, changing the trend. In the
last analysed years of hidden reserves, 2002 and
2003, there is not an under- or over-use of the
word, which is signicant.
The importance of the words reserves and
shares is a clear result but some other words
included in Table 2 can be important for our
analysis, although out of context, the study of its
characteristic element index is not relevant, so it is
necessary to use the display of the concordance.

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Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008
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Table 2: Characteristic elements of the analysed disclosure


Word
Acquisitions
Additional
Adjusted
Amendment
Disclosure
Estimates
Future
Global
Information
Option
Prices
Profit
Proved
Reserves
Restatement
Shares

1998

12

3
2
4
4
12
4
4
6
13
8
7

1999
3
3
12
11

3
3
4
4

3
4
13
8
9

2000
3
3
13
13
2
3
3
3
3
12
4

6
16
11
15

2001

13
13
2

5
2
6
15
11
15

2002
15
12
5
120
14
14
14
13
15

16
14
18
119
111

2003
13
14
5
114
14
13
15
14
15
3
16
13
110
127
115

......................................................................................................................................

......................................................................................................................................

Table 3: Concordance of the word acquisitions in 1999 disclosure


1% (147% excluding 1999 divestments and acquisitions). Additions through revisions and discoveries
2% before and 56% after divestments and acquisitions, the 3-year rolling average replacement
Fourth quarter of 1999 as well as other acquisitions and capacity additions made during the year
......................................................................................................................................

The concordance tool allows the visualisation a


chosen word in context. The last step in this
analysis will be to analyse all the words with a
signicant evolution in the characteristic element
index in their context, to discover whether or not
they are related to the disclosure about hidden oil
reserves and the trend to reward managers and
directors with shares and options (an example of
the concordances of the word acquisitions in the
1999 disclosure is included in Table 3).
The evolution of the use of the word acquisitions is related to the fact that the company
had hidden oil reserves, because in the last years
of the analysed period, 2002 and 2003, the
disclosure tries to explain that there have been
enough acquisitions and discoveries of oil to
ensure a strong competitive position for Shell.
The trend of the word additional is parallel to
the one of acquisitions, because sometimes the

18

company uses both words together during 2002


and 2003 to point out the effort made to increase
reserves.
The word additional is also strongly used with
the word information; in order to identify the
trend of this we use the tool of repeated segments,
which are dened as a series of consecutive forms
found several times in the text. Hence, the
expression additional information has increased
from not being used in 1998 and 1999, to being
used four times in 2000, ve times in 2001, 12
times in 2002 and 11 times in 2003 being used in
the latter years arguably to disguise the lack of
important information with the profusion of
disclosure. This is also in line with the characteristic element indices of the words disclosure and
information, which change from negative values
at the beginning of the period to be over-used in
2002 and 2003.

r 2008 The Authors


Journal compilation r 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Business Ethics: A European Review


Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008

The characteristic element indices of the words


adjusted and amendment are not relevant to
the main hypothesis of this paper; the rst one is
mainly used for giving details of adjusted earnings
and the second one to explain amendments
included in the 20-F Form.
The word estimates analysed in context results
in it being shown to be used sometimes together
with the word reserves (the repeated segments
indicate that the frequency of use was once in
1998 and 1999, twice in 2000, three times in
2001, and four times in 2002 and 2003). Hence,
the disclosure can give only a very approximate
idea of the amount of reserves presented by
the company, which can be importantly contrasted with the more important over-use of the
word proved strongly linked to the word
reserves (the characteristic element index of
estimates is 14 and 13 in 2002 and 2003,
smaller than the 18 and 110 indexes of the word
proved; the repeated segments show a large
change: the use of proved reserves is six times
in 1998, 13 times in 1999, 10 times in years
2000 and 2001, 90 times in 2002 and 115 times in
2003).
The word reserves, when analysed in
its context with the tool of the concordances,
is also strongly linked to restatement;
the repeated segments show that reserves restatement is not used from 1998 to 2001, but it is
used 65 times in 2002 and 85 times in 2003
(Table 4).
The trend of the characteristic element indices
of the words future and global is also similar.
It tends to change to a future vision in 2002
and 2003, highlighting, through an over-use of
this phrase, that Shell operates on a global
basis.

The analysis of the words option and prices


must be done together, because the concordances
of prices show that it is mainly used to refer to
the oil, crude and gas prices. The company overuses the word to note the high prices of its main
resource. While for the case of the option prices
the analysis of the repeated segments shows that
its use is not so important (it is only used ve
times in 1998, three times in 1999, six times in
2000, three times in 2001 and in 2002, and four
times in 2003), which shows no trend or important
change.

Being transparent
Transparency, as a principle, means that the
external impact of the actions of the organisation
can be ascertained from that organisations
reporting (Crowther & Jatana 2005) and pertinent
facts are not disguised within that reporting. Thus
all the effects of the actions of the organisation,
including external impacts, should be apparent to
all stakeholders from using the information
provided by the organisations reporting mechanisms. Transparency is of particular importance to
external stakeholders, as these users generally lack
the background details and knowledge available
to internal users of such information (Tapscott &
Ticoll 2003). Transparency therefore can be seen
to be a part of the process of recognition of
responsibility on the part of the organisation for
the external effects of its actions and equally part
of the process of transferring power to external
stakeholders. Often, however, there is strong
resistance by corporate managers, often argued
on the grounds that more transparency would

......................................................................................................................................

Table 4: Number of times of use of the repeated segments in the analysed disclosure
Repeated segment (no. times used)
Additional information
Estimated reserves
Proved reserves
Reserves restatement
Option prices

1998
0
1
6
0
5

1999
0
1
13
0
3

2000
4
2
10
0
6

2001
5
3
10
0
3

2002
12
4
90
65
3

2003
11
4
115
85
4

......................................................................................................................................

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Journal compilation r 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Business Ethics: A European Review


Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008

erode their competitive advantage (Aras &


Crowther 2007).
The analysis we have undertaken shows the
changes in some signicant words used in the
disclosed information for Shell. It is equally
important of course to consider the words which
are not used or the signicance of their absence.
Thus, for example, the analysis in Table 2 shows
that the word reserves is used extensively in the
later years when there is a continual re-evaluation
of proven reserves, or a gradual disclosing of the
truth already known to Shell directors. We would
argue, however, that its under-use in the earlier
years is equally signicant, the purpose of this
being to imply that there is nothing to disclose
and that everything is ne with the reserves5 in
other words that it is a completely uncontroversial
and therefore insignicant aspect of Shells
activity. Transparency therefore is partly about
what is said and partly about what is not said.
Thus we argue that the language present or absent
is employed in an Orwellian (1970) sense of being
used as a device for corrupting thought, by being
used as an instrument to prevent thought about
the various alternative realities of the organisations activity.
The most important conclusion from this deep
analysis of Shells controversial period is that
stakeholders are at the very end of the process,
and that the previous steps of the process include
to obtain more rewards and to increase prot
the traditional goal of the companies to maximise
prot is still in the mind of the managers and even
in the mind of shareholders. And the new ways
to give an accounting to the stakeholders, such as
through increased disclosure, and especially voluntarily disclosure, are not enough to comply
with the wider goals that a company is supposed
to have.

Conclusions
It is apparent for Shell, in line with general
experience, that the actual trend is to increase the
extent of disclosure, but it is questionable whether
it is for improving the information given to
stakeholders or to hide the important questions

20

in the totality of disclosure. After the deep lexical


analysis of Shells disclosure during this critical
period, the results show that only sometimes is
there some slight evidence of the truth about the
hidden reserves and the managers remuneration
through stock options. Based upon this, we argue
that disclosure is not used in a proper way.
Signicantly, we claim that it is not really very
probable that such analysis can be done by any
one of the stakeholders, even if they recognise the
need from the information provided and not
provided in the disclosure. Inevitably, when the
truth becomes known, this affects the level of trust
which stakeholders place in both the management
of the company and the efcacy of the corporate
social disclosure which does take place. Equally
inevitably, this lack of trust affects other companies also.
The implications and conclusions obtained
highlight the problem of the lack of content in
corporate social disclosure: some rms avoid the
communication of crucial content, some others
twist the results in order to camouage advantages to shareholders or managers. If it is like this
for disclosing rms, what is happening in the case
of non-disclosing rms? This last question may
give us an idea of the important gap that there
may be between corporate reality and the image
that is produced through disclosure.

Notes
1. Although philosophers such as Robert Owen were
expounding those views more than a century earlier.
2. The benets of incorporating stakeholders into a
model of performance measurement and accountability have, however, been extensively criticised.
See, for example, Freedman & Reed (1983), Sternberg (1997, 1998) and Hutton (1997) for details of
this ongoing discourse.
3. This paper is entitled No principals, no principles
and nothing in reserve: Shell and the failure of
Agency Theory and is currently under review by an
international refereed journal.
4. As we have previously explained, the concept of
disclosure is non-homogeneous and includes all the
information primarily issued outside the nancial

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Business Ethics: A European Review


Volume 17 Number 1 January 2008

statements and not explicitly required by any GAAP


or rule.
5. See our earlier paper Crowther & Ortiz-Martinez
(2006) for full details of the reserves and their reevaluation.

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