Background Recent cohort studies of randomised controlled trials have provided evidence of within-study selective reporting bias; where statistically significant outcomes are more likely to be more completely reported compared to non-significant outcomes. Bias resulting from selective reporting can impact on meta-analyses, influencing the conclusions of systematic reviews, and in turn, evidence based clinical practice guidelines. In 2006 we received funding to investigate if there was evidence of within-study selective reporting in a cohort of RCTs submitted to New Zealand Regional Ethics Committees in 1998/99. This research involved accessing ethics applications, their amendments and annual reports, and comparing these with corresponding publications. We did not plan to obtain informed consent from trialists to view their ethics applications for practical and scientific reasons. In November 2006 we sought ethical approval to undertake the research from our institutional ethics committee. The Committee declined our application on the grounds that we were not obtaining informed consent from the trialists to view their ethics application. This initiated a seventeen month process to obtain ethical approval. This publication outlines what we planned to do, the issues we encountered, discusses the legal and ethical issues, and presents some potential solutions.