Background: Prognostic research has many important purposes, including (i) describing the natural history and clinical course of health conditions, (ii) investigating variables associated with health outcomes of interest, (iii) estimating an individual's probability of developing different outcomes, (iv) investigating the clinical application of prediction models, and (v) investigating determinants of recovery that can inform the development of interventions to improve patient outcomes. But much prognostic research has been poorly conducted and interpreted, indicating that a number of conceptual areas are often misunderstood. Recent initiatives to improve this include the Prognosis Research Strategy (PROGRESS) and the Transparent Reporting of a multivariable prediction model for Individual Prognosis or Diagnosis (TRIPOD) Statement. In this paper, we aim to show how different categories of prognostic research relate to each other, to differentiate exploratory and confirmatory studies, discuss moderators and mediators, and to show how important it is to understand study designs and the differences between prediction and causation. Main text: We propose that there are four main objectives of prognostic studies - description, association, prediction and causation. By causation, we mean the effect of prediction and decision rules on outcomes as determined by intervention studies and the investigation of whether a prognostic factor is a determinant of outcome (on the causal pathway). These either fall under the umbrella of exploratory (description, association, and prediction model development) or confirmatory (prediction model external validation and investigation of causation). Including considerations of causation within a prognostic framework provides a more comprehensive roadmap of how different types of studies conceptually relate to each other, and better clarity about appropriate model performance measures and the inferences that can be drawn from different types of prognostic studies. We also propose definitions of 'candidate prognostic factors', 'prognostic factors', 'prognostic determinants (causal)' and 'prognostic markers (non-causal)'. Furthermore, we address common conceptual misunderstandings related to study design, analysis, and interpretation of multivariable models from the perspectives of association, prediction and causation. Conclusion: This paper uses a framework to clarify some concepts in prognostic research that remain poorly understood and implemented, to stimulate discussion about how prognostic studies can be strengthened and appropriately interpreted.