A pilot study, pilot project, pilot test, or pilot experiment is a small scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate feasibility, time, cost, adverse events, and improve upon the study design prior to performance of a full-scale research project.
Pilot experiments are frequently carried out before large-scale quantitative research, in an attempt to avoid time and money being used on an inadequately designed project. A pilot study is usually carried out on members of the relevant population. A pilot study is often used to test the design of the full-scale experiment which then can be adjusted. It is a potentially valuable insight and, should anything be missing in the pilot study, it can be added to the full-scale (and more expensive) experiment to improve the chances of a clear outcome.
In sociology, pilot studies can be referred to as small-scale studies that will help identify design issues before the main research is done. Although pilot experiments have a well-established tradition, their usefulness as a strategy for change has been questioned, at least in the domain of environmental management. Extrapolation from a pilot study to large scale strategy may not be assumed as possible, partly due to the exceptional resources and favorable conditions that accompany a pilot study.
In the health research context, studies conducted in preparation for a future randomized controlled trial are known as pilot and feasibility studies, where pilot studies are a subset of feasibility studies. A feasibility study asks whether something can be done, should we proceed with it, and if so, how. A pilot study asks the same questions, but also has a specific design feature: in a pilot study, a future study – or part of a future study – is conducted on a smaller scale.
A checklist was published in 2016 to provide guidance on how to report pilot trials.
- Thabane L, Ma J, Chu R, Cheng J, Ismaila A, Rios LP, Robson R, Thabane M, Giangregorio L, Goldsmith CH (2010). "A tutorial on pilot studies: the what, why and how". BMC Med Res Methodol. 10 (1). doi:10.1186/1471-2288-10-1. PMC 2824145. PMID 20053272.
- Billé, R. (2010) “Action without change? On the use and usefulness of pilot experiments in environmental management.”. S.A.P.I.EN.S. 3 (1)
- Sandra M Eldridge, Gillian A Lancaster, Michael J Campbell, Lehana Thabane, Sally Hopewell, Claire L Coleman, Christine M Bond. Defining Feasibility and Pilot Studies in Preparation for Randomised Controlled Trials: Development of a Conceptual Framework. PLoS ONE. 2016; 11(3)
- Sandra M Eldridge, Claire L Chan, Michael J Campbell, Christine M Bond, Sally Hopewell, Lehana Thabane, Gillian A Lancaster on behalf of the PAFS consensus group. Consort 2010 statement: extension to randomised pilot and feasibility trials. BMJ. 2016; 355: i5239