A research project true story


Lorne Malvo, a young and ambitious postdoc, joins the lab of rising star Dr. Lou Solverson at the University of Luverne in Minnesota. Within Dr Solverson’s group, Lorne starts an industrially funded project on the Haber-Bosch process toward the artificial nitrogen fixation for the production of ammonia. The Haber-Bosch process is typically conducted at 150–250 bar and between 400–500 °C but recently in 1985 it was published a patent using a new family of iron catalysts that, according to the patent, were capable to substantially reduce the ranges of pressure and temperature with no loss of efficiency. The sponsors of the project wanted Dr Solverson and Lorne to investigate the validity of the results published in the patent and further investigate new catalysts to improve the Haber-Bosh process.

The results published in the patent lacked lots of information related to the synthesis and characterization of the catalysts used, experimental procedures and catalysis conditions were poorly described. So the initial step of reproducing published results turned into a big challenge.


After more than one year of tests and catalyst screening Lorne and Dr. Solverson were not capable to reproduce the results published in the patent and started to question its veracity. Still all this work was very useful to learn about all the difficulties of the process itself and produced enough relevant data for a publication. Solverson and Malvo were aware of the difficulty of publishing a paper based on someone else’s results but also assumed the responsibility of sharing with the catalysis community their results which questioned an accepted patent. Under the title “Reinvestigation of new iron catalysts for the Haber-Bosch process” Solverson and Malvo submitted a paper to the journal Catalysis & Chemistry (from the Editorial Fargo) with an impact factor of 5.04.


Solverson and Malvo received comments from the referees:

-Referee one considered the paper could be published in Catalysis & Chemistry because of the interest to the catalysis community and wanted to include a few more references (probably this referee’s work)

-Referee two did not accept the paper arguing that Malvo and Solverson’s contribution was only a reproduction of the work published in the patent.

Referee two was what Malvo and Solverson were most afraid of, someone that did not understand the aim of the paper which was a warning to the community about a patent that at first seemed promising. After a few unsuccessful attempts to convince referee two, Malvo and Solverson decided to submit their work to the journal Chemistry of Catalysis (Bo Munk Editorial) with an impact factor of 4.7.


Malvo and Solverson’s paper was accepted with minor revisions in Chemistry of Catalysis. A few days before the paper was in press Malvo realised that impact factors had changed and now Chemistry of Catalysis had an impact factor of 5.426 (Previously 4.7) and Catalysis & Chemistry had an impact factor of 4.556 (Previously 5.04).


Dr Solverson was awarded with a prestigious grant and was promoted to Full Professor, he continues producing high quality research but the events occurred during 1987 made him very sceptical about the peer-review system.

Lorne Malvo could not take it anymore and lost all faith in the peer-review system, he quitted science and currently survives as soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire him.

A couple of interesting papers on the Haber-Bosh process:

Lessons learned and lessons to be learned for developing homogeneous transition metal complexes catalyzed reduction of N2 to ammonia. Chinnappan Sivasankar, Sambath Baskaran, Masilamani Tamizmani, Kankanala Ramakrishna. Journal of Organometallic Chemistry, Volume 752, 2014, Pages 44–58.

Exploring the limits: A low-pressure, low-temperature Haber–Bosch process. Aleksandra Vojvodica, Andrew James Medfordb, Felix Studta, Frank Abild-Pedersena, Tuhin Suvra Khana, T. Bligaarda, J.K. Nørskov. Chemical Physics Letters, Volume 598, 2014, Pages 108–112.

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