The Brick Wall of Science (with Aerogel!)

In contrast to the joy of crystallization,  there is always that sinking feeling when you can’t get something to work.

In light of recent events, chemists are becoming much more skeptical about the veracity of the results they see in print, and to a large extent, that’s a good thing.  In some cases, however, this can be problematic as well.  For example, recently I’ve been trying to carry out what should be a simple, routine reaction.  I won’t give any details, but the reaction is the very definition of “textbook.”  I can’t get it to work worth a damn.  I’ve tried everything I can think of, I’m following literature procedures to the T, but it just won’t work out the way it’s reported.

Here’s the real dilemma: this reaction was reported to work, but I can’t reproduce the results.  I even know other people who have had trouble reproducing these results.  So what is the problem?  I have to wonder whether it’s a failing in my abilities as a chemist, but at the same time, at what point do you say “These reported results can’t be right.”  I’m definitely not to that point with my chemistry, but if I were working with a reaction that wasn’t so firmly established I would have to seriously consider the possibility that the reported results were false.

So am I jumping the gun on this?  Did I just miss something in those papers I read?  I feel like I may be more likely to accuse falsification just because there have been some high profile reports of such things.

Then try to think of yourself on the other end of things.  Any chemistry that I publish will be true to the best of my knowledge, but what if someone questions my results?  I know I have evidence to back it up, but how do you tell someone that their inability to reproduce my results must be some fault on their end.  Worse yet, what if I made an honest mistake and misidentified something?  Is that forgivable, or would my carelessness mar all of my accomplishments.  These are serious issues and I think that some of this may have gotten lost in the fray of competing accusations.

So what am I to do, with a textbook reaction that doesn’t behave like it should?  How long do I pound my head in to the brick wall of science before I give up on it?  And perhaps a more ominous concern is what happens when someone asks why I didn’t just use this obvious textbook reaction instead of my obviously circuitous work around!!

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