Exclusive: UCSF and VA found “pervasive” manipulation in lab of former center director

Rajvir Dahiya

Two institutional investigations that concluded in 2016 and 2019 found scientific misconduct in multiple publications from the lab of a leading urologist at the University of California, San Francisco, Retraction Watch has learned. 

The investigations could not determine who had manipulated the published images of experimental data, but the 2019 report concluded that Rajvir Dahiya, also director of the urology research center at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, “was senior/last author on all these publications and therefore responsible for the results.” Dahiya retired in 2020. 

The two investigation reports, which we obtained through a public records request, along with the reports from the preliminary inquiries preceding the investigations, recommend notifying the journals that published eight papers of the issues identified. Four have so far been retracted, one corrected, and two marked with expressions of concern. One of those expressions of concern was published last month. 

In comments to Retraction Watch, Dahiya blamed the findings that research misconduct occurred in his lab on the age of the papers. He said the VA destroyed notebooks with original data that had been stored in a central facility after the required data retention period had lapsed: 

The major concern was that the original data was not found to address these concerns. On one hand, the VA/UCSF storage facility discarded all our original data, and on the other hand, the VA/UCSF committee wanted original data to address their concerns and thus blamed us that we fasified [sic] this data.  We also carried out a series of new experiments to generate new original data to address all their concerns but they did not agree with the new data either.

In the investigation report from 2016, the committee called the overall lack of raw data or draft manuscripts and figures “puzzling,” and noted that Dahiya had said the lab began keeping digital copies of data in 2005. 

Dahiya told the committee that the relevant lab notebooks were lost during laboratory moves. However, the report stated: 

There is no direct evidence for this occurring, and neither the former nor current ACOS [Associate Chief of Staff] for Research at the San Francisco VAMC has any record or recollection of such a loss. 

The committee considered whether data may have been destroyed intentionally, but decided that because much of the lab’s data was lost, rather than data related only to the allegations of manipulation, the loss was “consistent with a chronic, general laxity of data management” rather than misconduct. 

Although the committee concluded Dahiya had been “negligent in his duties as a laboratory director,” they did not believe his actions met the criteria for research misconduct due to recklessness: 

There is no clear evidence that his failure to maintain research records was done with the intention or knowledge that his behavior incurred the risk of data fabrication or falsification, i.e., scientific misconduct by members of his research group. 

The report determined that four of Dahiya’s publications “​​contain instances of data fabrication or falsification,” and recommended notifying the journals as one of four corrective actions. The committee also recommended that Dahiya “develop a systematic, comprehensive approach for data storage, including the archiving of original data, images, and laboratory notebooks,” and periodically audit his lab’s work for scientific integrity with a research integrity officer. 

In another recommendation that Dahiya should work with a research integrity officer to train his lab members in scientific integrity, the committee wrote: 

Since no single individual was clearly responsible for this misconduct, it is likely that the instances of misconduct described in the four allegations represent the actions of multiple individuals over a period of years. This suggests that the research environment in the Respondent’s lab does not adequately foster or oversee ethically sound scientific practices.

In addition to the committee’s recommended actions, Bonnie S. Graham, the director of the San Francisco VA Health Care System, who certified the report, recommended a review of Dahiya’s “suitability … to function as a PI and/or to supervise research at the VA.” 

Neither Dahiya’s employment timeline (archived from the UCSF website before his emeritus status ended and the page became unavailable) nor his grant funding history indicate that he ceased functioning as a PI. 

The second investigation, concluded in 2019, identified manipulated data in six papers. Some of the flagged figures came from papers that had been included in the first investigation. The committee wrote: 

The manipulation of Western blot gels and splicing of gels have been pervasive in the Dahiya lab. … There are numerous examples of manipulation of data to make the results fit what was expected, for example, a blank space on a gel to represent a negative control that was not run.

In addition to notifying the journals that had published the papers, the committee recommended that all lab members receive training on best practices for publishing figures, and that Dahiya “must audit data to be published from his laboratory and document that published figures are accurate until no longer determined necessary.” 

Dahiya “may not apply for external funding until these Corrective Actions are in place and documented,” the report stated. 

The report is dated Sept. 4, 2019, but the committee members did not sign it until January 2020. Dahiya retired that June. We asked him about the committee’s recommendations regarding data auditing and prohibition of applying for grants, and he told us: 

The committee recommended that all the data from our lab must be submitted to the VAMC Chief of Staff for Research. We strictly followed all the guidelines recommended by the committee. 

We’ve previously reported on the letters UCSF and the VA have sent to journals asking them to retract papers, and how one journal took five years to heed the request. That journal wasn’t the only one taking its time: Last month, the British Journal of Cancer, a Springer Nature title, placed an expression of concern on a paper flagged in the 2019 VA/UCSF report.  

The expression of concern highlights a correction from 2018 that replaced a figure in the paper, and states that the VA/UCSF investigation “could not establish that the data in the replacement panels … corresponded to the data of the original experiments. … Readers should therefore interpret the results and conclusions presented with caution.” 

Dahiya disagreed with the expression of concern. He told us: 

On May 18th 2018, Dr. Hiroshi Hirata voluntarily proposed to replace Figure 4D as a correction and the Editor-in-chief and Scientific Publications Manager of Brit. J. Cancer agreed to go ahead with a correction of this figure.

Now on August 16th 2023 (after 5 years), the VA / UCSF investigation committee does not agree with this correction and forces Brit. J. Cancer to write this statement. 

Dahiya also forwarded us an email chain between Hirata and the journal, which began with a May 8, 2018 email in which Hirata wrote: 

I got Email [sic] from Dr Dahiya to contact you about correction [sic].

The inquiry report with allegations about two figures in the paper, including the one that Hirata sought to correct, was dated Feb. 7, 2018. 

After going back and forth with detailed questions about the new figure, the journal’s scientific publications manager conveyed the editor in chief’s decision to publish a correction on May 18. 

The investigation report acknowledged the correction, but stated: 

without original data showing pictures (negative and positive) taken at the same time, we conclude intentional research misconduct occurred because the reuse of different frames of the same data to represent 2 conditions is research misconduct and this activity constitutes a significant departure from accepted research practices.

However, the report’s proposed action to take on the paper did not seem to recommend contacting the journal over the corrected figure, but only to assess whether the journal should be notified of another figure showing a gel that had been spliced. 

A spokesperson for Springer Nature said that due to the “uncertainty around the data” in the corrected figure, the editor in chief of the journal felt the expression of concern “was the most appropriate editorial action to take.”  

As for the notice appearing nearly four years after the investigation report was finalized, the spokesperson said: 

The journal became aware of the outcome of the institutional investigation during a period of significant transition while journal ownership transferred to Springer Nature and the previous Editor-in-Chief retired. Additionally, we spent some time attempting to contact some of the authors and, regretfully, together this led to some delays in our handling of the matter.

Only one of the eight papers that the investigations identified as containing manipulated data remains without some sort of notice: 

Dahiya disagreed with all the retractions. He told us: 

Other journals did not agree with the VA/UCSF investigation committee report and thus no further actions were taken. 

All the journals that published our papers did not have any problems with our data. But the VA/UCSF investigation committee members forced these four journals to retract our papers.

Another preliminary inquiry, completed in 2021, determined the single allegation of falsified data it concerned did not warrant a full investigation.

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6 thoughts on “Exclusive: UCSF and VA found “pervasive” manipulation in lab of former center director”

  1. ” In comments to Retraction Watch, Dahiya blamed the findings that research misconduct occurred in his lab on the age of the papers.”
    Once something has been published the data do not change with time. How does the age of a paper cause misconduct?

    1. “As for the notice appearing nearly four years after the investigation report was finalized, the spokesperson said:

      The journal became aware of the outcome of the institutional investigation during a period of significant transition while journal ownership transferred to Springer Nature and the previous Editor-in-Chief retired.”

      How long does journal ownership transfer take? How come the journal couldn’t act on the institutional investigation findings during the transition? Did the journal stop collecting fee for the duration of the transfer?

      1. All 3 of your comments are right on the nose. The publishers and research institutions claim to care about research integrity, but the evidence suggests that they work *very hard* not to put that claim to work.

  2. The reports are very troubling reading. When a lab is staffed mainly by foreign workers on visas, the lab head has a great deal of power over them. When decades worth of such foreign workers falsify data, it seems very likely that the lab head is using his outsized influence to push for results–perhaps not directly asking for fraud, but creating conditions in which fraud can seem like the only way out. Furthermore, losing track of all these people once they leave the lab doesn’t suggest a whole lot of interest in nurturing their careers.

    I won’t soon forget the one foreign first author they did manage to interview, who was so terrified she couldn’t make sense.

    The whole thing makes an ugly pairing with “World-renowned biologist accused of bullying student” upthread. I feel the committees bent over backwards not to comment on what was likely a dangerous, toxic, fraud-inciting lab culture.

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