BACKGROUND Ethics committees typically apply the common principles of autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence and justice to research proposals but with variable weighting and interpretation. This paper reports a comparison of ethical requirements in an international cross-cultural study and discusses their implications. DISCUSSION The study was run concurrently in New Zealand, UK, Israel, Canada and USA and involved testing hypotheses about believability of testimonies regarding alleged child sexual abuse. Ethics committee requirements to conduct this study ranged from nil in Israel to considerable amendments designed to minimise participant harm in New Zealand. Assessment of minimal risk is a complex and unreliable estimation further compounded by insufficient information on probabilities of particular individuals suffering harm. Estimating potential benefits/ risks ratio and protecting participants' autonomy similarly are not straightforward exercises. SUMMARY Safeguarding moral/humane principles should be balanced with promotion of ethical research which does not impede research posing minimal risk to participants. In ensuring that ethical standards are met and research has scientific merit, ethics committees have obligations to participants (to meet their rights and protect them from harm); to society (to ensure good quality research is conducted); and to researchers (to treat their proposals with just consideration and respect). To facilitate meeting all these obligations, the preferable focus should be promotion of ethical research, rather than the prevention of unethical research, which inevitably results in the impediment of researchers from doing their work. How the ethical principles should be applied and balanced requires further consideration.