Although corruption is the focus of international policies and strategies for its elimination, such as the UN Convention against Corruption (United Nations 2003) and the European Commission’s (2019) summary of its policy, it is a complex concept and difficult to define with precision. In practice, corruption can take the form of bribery, nepotism or misappropriation.

Common elements of conceptual definitions include the exercise of a public duty for a benefit provided to the duty holder by a person who gains a reciprocal benefit from the wrongful exercise of the duty of that duty holder; dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery. Other definitions focus on the abuse of a trust, generally involving public power, for private gain usually in the form of money or on exclusion from an opportunity to participate in open, competitive, and fair political and economic processes (Johnston, 1996). Another recurrent element is that corruption is consciously unfair or discriminatory and permits persons holding power to decide without competition, and through covert considerations, who gets what he or she wants or needs (Rotberg, 2017).

Corruption can be equated with injustice. If justice is what is expected from political leaders and governments, then corruption can mean unjust actions committed by them. This applies with most force to public goods: the central notion of which is that they are to be managed and distributed by principles different from those applying to the distribution of private goods – which can be distributed according to the wishes of those who manage them. Distributing public goods in similar ways as private goods is seen as corruption (Rothstein, 2017).

In the research context, using these approaches to definition, any public process for the determination of funding agencies’ research subject priorities, the funding of research or the scientific or ethical approval of research can be vulnerable to corruption.

Individual and teams of researchers may also be bribed to amend or distort their research. Such conduct could be described as corrupt where the briber benefits reciprocally and if it is accepted that the responsible conduct of research is a public good. (see also Conflict of Interest.)