Resolving the Tension Between Exploration and Confirmation in Preclinical Biomedical Research

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2020;257:71-79. doi: 10.1007/164_2019_278.


Confirmation through competent replication is a founding principle of modern science. However, biomedical researchers are rewarded for innovation, and not for confirmation, and confirmatory research is often stigmatized as unoriginal and as a consequence faces barriers to publication. As a result, the current biomedical literature is dominated by exploration, which to complicate matters further is often disguised as confirmation. Only recently scientists and the public have begun to realize that high-profile research results in biomedicine can often not be replicated. Consequently, confirmation has become central stage in the quest to safeguard the robustness of research findings. Research which is pushing the boundaries of or challenges what is currently known must necessarily result in a plethora of false positive results. Thus, since discovery, the driving force of scientific progress, is unavoidably linked to high false positive rates and cannot support confirmatory inference, dedicated confirmatory investigation is needed for pivotal results. In this chapter I will argue that the tension between the two modes of research, exploration and confirmation, can be resolved if we conceptually and practically separate them. I will discuss the idiosyncrasies of exploratory and confirmatory studies, with a focus on the specific features of their design, analysis, and interpretation.

Keywords: False negative; False positive; Preclinical randomized controlled trial; Replication; Reproducibility; Statistics.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research*
  • Data Collection / statistics & numerical data*
  • Reward