Psychiatric research is advancing rapidly, with studies revealing new investigative tools and technologies that are aimed at improving the treatment and care of patients with psychiatric disorders. However, the ethical framework in which such research is conducted is not as well developed as we might expect. In this paper we argue that more thought needs to be given to the principles that underpin research in psychiatry and to the problems associated with putting those principles into practice. In particular, we comment on some of the difficulties posed by the twin imperatives of ensuring that we respect the autonomy and interests of the research subject and, at the same time, enable potentially beneficial psychiatric research to flourish. We do not purport to offer a blueprint for the future; we do, however, seek to advance the debate by identifying some of the key questions to which better answers are required.