Trial and error in medical science: “Of great importance”

Gevallen ijsje. Foto: Sarah Kilian, via Unsplash

On 22 May, Stefan Gaillard, co-founder of the Journal of Trial & Error and project coordinator at The New Utrecht School, gave a lecture as part of the Week of Science organised by the Prinses Máxima Centrum, highlighting the importance of trial and error in medical-scientific practice.

‘Trial & Error in (Medical) Science’

In his thought-provoking lecture titled ‘Trial & Error in (Medical) Science’, Gaillard explored the concepts of failure and trial and error in scientific research and their profound significance. He began by drawing attention to the growing societal trend of embracing failure and trial and error. This trend can be noticed all around us, as evidenced by failure festivals, CVs of failure, the emergence of institutes dedicated to trial and error, and even a wikiHow entry on ‘4 Ways to Embrace Failure’. It is evident that failure and trial and error have permeated various aspects of our lives.

However, Gaillard pointed out that despite this increasing openness about failure and trial and error, much is still to be gained. For example, CVs of failure are often only shared by already successful people and positive publication bias remains a pervasive problem in academia. Instead of inhibiting open discussion about trial and error in research, academia should foster an environment that promotes testing, improvement, and the invaluable learning experiences inherent in the scientific process, recognising that setbacks are an integral part of this journey.

Historical examples

The lecture then turned to various historical examples of setbacks that lead to serendipitous discoveries. Gaillard presented examples such as penicillin and Viagra, showcasing how these ground-breaking discoveries were not the result of a single Eureka moment but rather the outcome of extensive trial and error. Large teams with substantial funding invested years in the iterative process of experimentation, failure, and refinement to achieve these remarkable breakthroughs.

Structural support

The lecture then addressed the need for structural support in scientific endeavours using three contemporary examples. First, the establishment of the Journal of Trial & Error (JOTE). JOTE aims to make public the lessons of the struggles in research. Being convinced of the productive role of errors, they aim to publish answers to the question ‘what went wrong?’ in the form of short empirical articles, and to problematise this question by reflection on those errors in reflection articles.

Second, the project NanoBubbles was mentioned as an example of correcting errors in the scientific literature. One way the project does so is through post-publication peer review: peer review which, as the name implies, occurs after potential errors have already been published. This type of error correction contributes to the trial and error process of a field and helps bring it forward. 

Third, the importance of recognising and rewarding trial and error efforts was highlighted, moving away from the ‘publish or perish’ mentality of quickly churning out positive results and instead reappreciating the value failure and trial and error in science.


Gaillard ended his talk by highlighting science as a self-correcting discipline, where the acknowledgment and rectification of errors as well as the process of trial and error itself contribute to progress.