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I am currently pursuing a PhD at Technion (Israel). My area of study lies in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which involves high performance computing. My research requires me to develop/use complex code on large clusters (hundreds of CPUs) made available for me by my university.

I have a few projects (which might one day be monetized) on which I am working on my personal time. One of them involves using code very similar to that I am already using for my research. Is it OK (from an ethical standpoint) for me to use my university's resources (both solvers and actual hardware) for my own projects? Note that I always make sure that these projects do not affect my research, and only work on them once I am ahead of schedule.

Would it be legal for me to do so in the United States? Or can the University be entitled to a piece of the company if it found out I had been using their resources for my projects? Note that the Israeli law system is also based on common law, so I am interested in knowing if it would be legal in the US.

Note that about 70% of the cluster's processors are never used since we are currently understaffed. Also, my own solver would use at most 10% of those unused processors.

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    But what effect does you using the "actual hardware" have on other people? – Ian Aug 9 '15 at 21:14
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    If your university told you "sorry, we don't have any more cluster time available for research because some students are mining bitcoins with the machines," would you still feel there's nothing wrong with using shared resources for more than they were intended? Also, what on Earth does it mean to be ahead of schedule in a PhD (or in academics in general)? – user4512 Aug 9 '15 at 21:49
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    @ChrisWhite the university has given our lab a lot more processors than we currently need. About 70% of them remain unused (the lab is new, new students/post docs should be joining us in the next months/year). Running my own solver on the cluster would use about 10% of those unused processors. – solalito Aug 10 '15 at 8:01
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    This might be a silly question, but have you asked the person/body that manages your cluster? They might have a policy on exactly this. – Landric Aug 10 '15 at 9:07
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    Every university I have ever worked at has had an explicit policy about what one may or may not use the university's computing resources for. Since many academics do consulting work, this is something that most universities should have well-thought-out policy on. Read the policy. If you're not certain how it applies to you, ask the people who are responsible for your university's policy. – David Richerby Aug 10 '15 at 11:14
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It's unethical to use your university's hardware resources and then not share with them the eventual proceeds of that research. If the work you do were to produce papers, then they would share in the reputational advantage for employing you and being affiliated with your work. If it would produce a patent or a product, then employment rules at my university in the US would have us split ownership and royalties. At the very least, the university bought the equipment, paid the power bill, and paid someone to administer it. Ethically they deserve to benefit, too.

Now, I have no idea what the laws of Israel or the regulations of your university have to say about this, so you should check before you do anything.

When it comes to software (the solvers in your question), things may be different. If the software is open source under a usual license, you may generally use it for any purpose you like. Open source licenses typically do not regulate use at all, and only cover redistribution. If the software is not open source, then, in the US at least, regulation of use is generally left to the copyright holder. Any permissions that you have to use that software flow through some sort of explicit (written down) or implicit license. If someone at your university gave you software owned by the university and told you to use it for your project, then generally speaking you may use it in the course of your employment as directed by your supervisor. You probably cannot use such software for a side project without permission from the copyright holder.

Your employment agreement, contract, or university regulations will govern whether or not personal projects somehow become property of the university, shared property, or are kept entirely separate due to your use of university resources. Most universities actually want their researchers to pursue interesting ideas, but if you use their property, they want a cut of the resulting profits or an ownership interest in any intellectual property. In the US, the Bayh-Dole Act guarantees that inventions made through federally funded research can be owned by the grantee rather than the US government, and most universities pursue this ownership. I don't know if Israel has an equivalent law.

The ethics here are pretty clear to me. Don't use other people's property to make a profit without sharing the profit with them. The laws and regulations are local, so ask your boss, administration, etc. about the local rules.

  • by split ownership you mean 50-50? Because I agree that ethically the university deserves a share of the company / profits, but to what degree? Is it judged on a case-by-case basis or are there some general guidelines, to your knowledge? :-) – Ant Aug 10 '15 at 8:37
  • @Ant, patent ownership is the only thing I know anything about at my university, and that's a negotiated thing, but the default is 50/50. – Bill Barth Aug 10 '15 at 11:43
  • Hi Bill, your reply answers a lot of the legal implications of something like this. Does your ethical viewpoint remain the same if you are an undergrad that pays money to use university facilities and does not partake in "official" research? – Conor Aug 10 '15 at 14:51
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    @Conor, my answer was in the context of employees and student-employees (grad students) who are under employment rules or contracts. My feelings on the ethics for non-employee students are more nuanced. At public universities in the US, tuition only covers part of the costs, so the taxpayer has probably contributed, too. I don't know how deeply to follow this idea (subsidized loans?). Universities typically have rules that cover students' work products too and are typically permissive. I'm certainly OK with that. Lots of startups come from uni projects. How much of Google did Stanford get? – Bill Barth Aug 10 '15 at 14:58
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Beside the concrete suggestions Bill made in his answer, which also specifically explain the situation in the U.S., you should discuss this with your head of department.

I know professors in Europe who actively encourage the use of university resources in certain cases where fresh doctoral degree holders create startups, for instance, or other creative somewhat professional uses, without trying to get any portion of the ownership or revenue. Expected benefits for the university in such cases include:

  • an increased visibility of the department's research
  • possible future opportunities for more research
  • simply the knowledge that the theoretical research is used in marketable products (which in turn can be presented as a showcase for the success of one's research when acquiring more funding)

Note that the respective universities generally do not try to "create products" or generate revenue from selling things. Their mission is to provide education, not to act as a business. As such, while lucrative activities are definitely welcome, there is little to no pressure that financial gain must necessarily be drawn out of each and every activity of the people at the university.

In general, though, do not use such resources without asking the person who is responsible for granting these resources in the first place. You may not negatively influence your own research, but, for instance, using resources of department-wide servers may still mean there is less capacity on those servers for other researchers.

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This one is on-spot: (whether this is a printer, cluster or anything)

Is it appropriate to use this printer for personal use http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1578

Bear in mind that many things which are accepted / ethical (or at least - not too unethical) may still be officially illegal (perhaps even printing directions to parties).

  • It seems this graphic largely misses the point. The graphic talks about clearly private, leisure-related uses. The question, on the other hand, talks about professional uses that are just not the primary research topic. As I've pointed out in my answer, I know department heads who are completely supportive of activities that could serve to broaden the professional horizon of their employees, even if they do not directly lead to research publications. – O. R. Mapper Aug 10 '15 at 9:02
  • Also note that in some legislations, minor activities that do not overly impact work can be legally assumed to be permitted if they are "usual among the staff" and not explicitly forbidden. Not sure to what extent this applies to the target cultures the OP is inquiring about, though. – O. R. Mapper Aug 10 '15 at 9:17
  • @O.R.Mapper Verbatim quote from the picture "Printing stuff for your side business". When it comes to the legal side - it varies a lot with contract, country, etc. BTW: My answer is by no means comprehensive - rather a short, humours (though not nonsensical) answer. – Piotr Migdal Aug 10 '15 at 10:35
  • You're right, I must have missed that text. Though in that case I would argue that it is indeed the high volume (as indicated in the graph) that increases the risk of problems, whereas the fact that it is for one's own business can, depending on the arrangement, easily make it more legitimate to use the resources in that way than the private things such as directions to parties. – O. R. Mapper Aug 10 '15 at 11:22

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