One of the largest cases of academic fraud has come to light after it was revealed that a researcher in the USA fabricated data in at least 21 studies on pain drugs.

The work of Scott Reuben, an anaesthesiologist at Baystate Medical Center in Massachusetts, has been the subject of an investigation since May last year. It now appears that he never conducted the clinical trials that he wrote about in journals.

Specifically, Dr Reuben’s ‘research’ had promoted the notion of shifting from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to the newer COX-2 inhibitors, such as Merck & Co’s Vioxx (rofecoxib) and Pfizer’s Celebrex (celecoxib), and Bextra (valdecoxib). He had argued that using these drugs in combination with Pfizer’s Neurontin (gabapentin) and Lyrica (pregabalin) could be effective in decreasing postoperative pain and reduce the use of addictive painkillers during recovery.

Dr Reuben had also claimed to have favourable data on Wyeth’s antidepressant Effexor XR (venlafaxine) as a treatment for pain. He is now on indefinite leave said the BMC which has asked the journals in which his studies were published to withdraw them.

Steve Shafer, editor-in-chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia, which published many of the papers, told the New York Times that he is considering withdrawing any study in which Dr Reuben served a pivotal role.“He was one of the most prolific investigators in the area of postoperative pain management,” he said, and this fraud “sets back our knowledge in the field tremendously.”

Pfizer spokesman Raymond Kerins told the newspaper that “independent clinical research advances disease treatments and improves the lives of patients”. As part of such research, “we count on independent researchers to be truthful and motivated by a desire to advance care for patients. It is very disappointing to learn about Dr Scott Reuben’s alleged actions.”

"Dr Reuben deeply regrets that this happened," his attorney, Ingrid Martin, told the Wall Street Journal, noting that he cooperated fully with the peer review committee at BMC. The lawyer added that “there were extenuating circumstances that the committee fairly and justly considered", but she did not provide details of what they were.