This paper makes a plea for more reflexive attempts to develop and anchor the emerging concept of responsible research and innovation (RRI). RRI has recently emerged as a buzzword in science policy, becoming a focus of concerted experimentation in many academic circles. Its performative capacity means that it is able to mobilise resources and spaces despite no common understanding of what it is or should be ‘made of’. In order to support reflection and practice amongst those who are interested in and using the concept, this paper unpacks understandings of RRI across a multi-disciplinary body of peer-reviewed literature. Our analysis focuses on three key dimensions of RRI (motivations, theoretical conceptualisations and translations into practice) that remain particularly opaque. A total of 48 publications were selected through a systematic literature search and their content was qualitatively analysed. Across the literature, RRI is portrayed as a concept that embeds numerous features of existing approaches to govern and assess emerging technologies. Our analysis suggests that its greatest potential may be in its ability to unify and provide political momentum to a wide range of long-articulated ethical and policy issues. At the same time, RRI’s dynamism and resulting complexity may represent its greatest challenge. Further clarification on what RRI has to offer in practice—beyond what has been offered to date—is still needed, as well as more explicit engagement with research and institutional cultures of responsibility. Such work may help to realise the high political expectations that are attached to nascent RRI.