I have been trying to optimize a difficult reaction; I thought a presence of zinc chloride might help so I gave this a try and there was an improvement: The results were getting better, week after week.
Some time later – by now with improved product purity and filtrability – I begun to wonder if the zinc chloride effect was real, or maybe something else was going on, so I finally got around to run a control. And sure enough, the reaction worked even better without zinc chloride. So, after many tries with quantities of reagents and additives, I arrived at optimized procedure which looked almost exactly like the one that I started with, except few minor details – the little changes that were incidentally co-introduced because of the ZnCl2 addition – few small changes that make a difference… I would have never tried these changes without it. And I would have given up if I had run the control experiments earlier and found out it does nothing.
It is delightful to read methodology papers, the observations and explanations arranged neatly, flowing like a good detective story, with a chain of clear logical reasoning based on the experimental evidence. But I suspect it is mostly fictional (There is no good place in a process paper to explain that after very slow reagent addition because of a clogged valve that no-one cared to inspect before the pilot run, the impurity profile improved and the troublesome sideproduct from the second step no longer buggers up the recrystallization). I worry that reading published accounts of process research can give the management a very unrealistic impression what a normal project should look like.