36

I am in my first year of a PhD in France. My adviser recently bought a laptop for me using the research funds on which the computational codes for my research work are installed. According to my adviser, I can take the laptop to my residence when I leave the lab.

Is it ethical to listen to music, watch videos or movies I love on the work computer?

I am well aware that discussing with my team would be the ideal thing to do but I am not sure how my supervisor would take it. I cannot reach a conclusion of whether listening to music and videos helps me constructively in my research. One favorable justification I found is that listening to music helps me concentrate better, but I am not sure it is always the case. The reason is that at times some movies feel very motivational, music feels soothing but on some other occasions I find myself investing hours in them when I am supposed to complete a task. This may be purely attributed to my personality but I am unable to reach an answer.

  • 3
    What do your colleagues do with work equipment like this? I am not sure whether it is the case in France, but at least from the legal perspective, some jurisdictions have a concept of "accepted use", where certain not directly work-related activities (e.g. checking private e-mails from work) are considered to be allowed simply on the grounds that everyone does it and it has not explicitly been forbidden by the employer. – O. R. Mapper Nov 18 '15 at 12:51
  • 1
    I dont think the issue will be if watching movies is constructive or not, more than the result of something happening to the computer. If it is designed to be bare bones for computation, with no changes in the system (like a browser cache changing storage size), you might need to be careful. Similarly, if it gets a virus or anything of the kind, it could be a big problem. Thats not to say it isnt a regular occurance... and you do need to ask your advisor – user-2147482637 Nov 18 '15 at 12:54
  • 4
    Isn't permitting you to take the laptop home tantamount to allowing personal use? If you want to keep personal and professional things separate, I'd suggest running a separate OS installation from an external drive (or a partition of the internal drive). – Moriarty Nov 18 '15 at 13:05
  • 6
    @Moriarty: Not necessarily. The permission to take work computers or similar to one's home can be particularly to prevent people from mixing work data with anything private (e.g. for keeping confidential work data and applications you'd install privately physically apart even when doing home-office). – O. R. Mapper Nov 18 '15 at 13:06
  • 3
    @Thejus: certainly the psychological benefits to your work of listening to music and watching movies while you aren't working are rather tenuous. If that were the justification, then it would be wide open to using research money for other leisure pursuits, holidays, etc, which clearly are not OK. Fortunately, you don't need to make the justification in that way. – Steve Jessop Nov 18 '15 at 16:13
20
+50

This started its life as a comment, but I think it actually makes a good answer:

I think discussions such as "listening to music help me concentrate better" are overanalyzing things here. To seriously justify anything with this effect, you'd have to dive into the psychology of different styles of music, working times, etc.

Seen more superficially, listening to music and watching movies are activities that are simply not directly a part of your work. The - implicit or explicit - agreement for using the laptop will likely be somewhere between "Use it like you would use your own computer, but eventually return it undamaged." and "Each and every keypress must be directly a part of your work, or else you must not perform it." You just have to find out where in this spectrum the agreement for using the laptop lies.

Therefore:

  • Look at what other (more senior) colleagues do with their work laptops.
  • Ask them directly.
    • Try to find out about intentional or implicit deviations between official rules and actual behaviour (and possibly decide for yourself then what you can live with).
  • Possibly ask the supervisor, if the above points are inconclusive.
  • 1
    Do you actually doubt there is an objective basis (waiting for research to substantiate it, or for web searching to locate such existing research) for listening to music materially facilitating concentration? – ErikE Nov 19 '15 at 0:15
  • 1
    @ErikE: I doubt there is an objective basis that is as simplistic as "listening to any music while at work is inherently better than listening to no music while at work". – O. R. Mapper Nov 19 '15 at 0:58
  • I can agree with that. I don't think all kinds of music are conducive to all kinds of work. I just know that in my own experience, certain kinds of music help me enter Flow state. I am objectively far more productive with the music than without, proven again and again. – ErikE Nov 19 '15 at 1:34
  • 2
    @ErikE: Certainly - I just tried to express that if the OP really wants to justify their listening to music as work-related, it will be a lot more complicated than claiming "music helps me concentrate", as many variables (exact work task being executed, type of music, duration of work, frequency of music style change, environment with and without music, ...) will have to be considered for an empricially valid statement. – O. R. Mapper Nov 19 '15 at 1:41
58

Unless explicitly stated in the rules that they should have told you when you got the computer, you can do whatever you want that doesn't damage the machine or compromises your work. Common sense applies:

  • Playing a CPU intensive game at the same time you are crunching some numbers you need soon will slow your computations, so it isn't good. Playing the same game while the CPU is doing nothing else, should be OK.
  • Storing music or films in the hard drive is fine, but if you are running out of space for your data, they should go away.
  • If the university is providing some backup service, make sure you are not bloating it with gigabytes of your personal stuff. A few megabytes of configuration files of your own programs and other small things shouldn't be an issue.

One can argue that just by using it you are wearing off the battery, and that is costing your university money; but on the other hand, a new battery costs around one salary day, and if that is what it takes to keep you happier and more productive (even a tiny bit) for years, I think it is well worth it.

If you were to need the help of IT support (in my university is as good as nonexistent anyway), they may delete your personal files and programs if they think they are related to the problem, as Todd Wilcox pointed out in the comment. If they were less understanding, you may even be told off for installing software that they don't know (mind you, it may even be research related!).

  • 3
    In fact, probably much less than one salary day at many institutions, when overhead is included. – jakebeal Nov 18 '15 at 14:16
  • 33
    From the perspective of an IT person, I would add a caveat to this solid answer: if someone brings me a computer to fix and one of the problems is low hard drive space or poor performance, I will summarily delete and/or uninstall anything not work-related that seems like it will make a difference. I recently deleted several GB of personal music files from a computer that was almost out of hard drive space, and I routinely uninstall game apps and chat clients that run in the background if the computer is slow. Where I work, it's only a problem if it's causing a problem, otherwise we don't care. – Todd Wilcox Nov 18 '15 at 14:41
  • 7
    Playing a CPU intensive game while crunching numbers might not be an issue if you don't need the numbers ASAP. – Ric Nov 18 '15 at 14:59
  • 4
    @ToddWilcox: To me, chat clients typically seem totally work-related. The other items sound like reasonable assumed candidates for removal, though. – O. R. Mapper Nov 18 '15 at 16:33
  • 19
    @DoktorJ Skype and AIM will probably get nuked — So, you don't want your researchers collaborating with anyone outside the university who doesn't use your internal chat client? Really? – JeffE Nov 19 '15 at 14:29
11

My answer might be slightly different than some... I'm in charge of managing several computers for an elementary school, including teacher computers, and man... the workload teachers and students cause for me by doing things they totally thought were "innocent" is huge. Don't get me wrong, if it didn't happen I wouldn't have a job, so I don't mind much, but sometimes they wreck relatively well working machines fast.

The main issues come from going to unknown sites and getting viruses. If you're using legit sites to find your videos and music, I'd say it isn't a big ethical issue. Legit meaning stuff like watching videos on Youtube or Netflix, listening to your own music on iTunes, etc. If you're using shady sites that might potentially bring on viruses, it becomes an ethical issue. If you're in the grey zone in the middle somewhere... the ethics are in the grey zone too.

So really I think the ethics depend on not just the actions but how you are partaking in them and what risks you are bringing along with you.

  • 1
    Could you be more specific on unknown sites? I am not sure what you meant by If you're using legit sites to find your videos and music, I'd say it isn't a big ethical issue . Is it like, if I don't get virus, everything I do is ethical? – Sathyam Nov 18 '15 at 17:25
  • 1
    I wouldn't say if you don't get a virus, because that's like saying if I shoot into a crowd and no one gets hit, was that ok? Nah, there was still the risk. Basically I'm saying that in my eyes the ethics depend on what risks you are taking. An example of a really risky idea... using pirate sites to obtain pirated music and movies, many of which are loaded with viruses. Middle ground would be searching on Google for music and movies and clicking on results that are from sites you never heard of (ie "unknown")... you do stuff like that, probably getting viruses eventually. – Andrew Whatever Nov 18 '15 at 17:37
  • A lot of the problems that arise at my school are from that second one, Google searches. "Where were you when the problems started?" "I don't know I was just searching on Google for a video and it brought me to some site." "What site?" "I don't know..." I'm not saying never do Google searches, just make sure you know what you're doing, especially if you download stuff from sites. – Andrew Whatever Nov 18 '15 at 17:40
  • 4
    I know what ethics are and of course they involve risk assessment. Would you say that, for instance, a medical researcher can ethically design an experiment without calculating risk assessment for the subjects involved? There are no human lives involved here but the idea is the same. The harm you could potentially do to this machine that was not bought with your private funds is based on risk assessment of your actions. – Andrew Whatever Nov 18 '15 at 19:15
  • Absolutely agree with @andrewwhatever. Check with the machine's owner to see if they have a policy on this -- my employer strictly restricts what can be installed on work machines because some code -- including freeware -- carries legal terms the company's lawyers consider intolerable or requires the higher-priced commercial license. Then make sure you have a legal copy of whatever it is; the one time I saw someone fired on the spot and marched out of the building was when a summer student was caught pirating a game on company time and hardware. – keshlam Nov 19 '15 at 2:06
6

Yes, I consider it ethical if done in a responsible manner (more on that below). Reasons:

  1. A laptop is a general purpose machine designed to be used for many things. Using it for recreational purposes in addition to research incurs no extra costs beyond those already invested in purchasing the machine (well, somebody mentioned battery and hard drive use, but come on - I've never had a laptop wear out either). An action that isn't harmful and is a net positive to the world usually should not be considered unethical.

  2. A rule or ethical convention that prevents non-work-related use of laptops would have several very negative consequences. Specifically, a very large class of university, government and corporate workers would be forced to:

    • buy and maintain another laptop for personal use. This is expensive and wasteful. The world already has enough economic and environmental problems, do we really need to add more junk and waste?
    • carry two laptops with them whenever they travel. Again, this is wasteful, overly burdensome, and mostly just pointless.
  3. Personal use of work computers is, as far as I know, widely accepted, at least in academia in the U.S. (This reason falls in the "supporting evidence" category, i.e., it is not proof that this behavior is ethical but suggests that it is at least widely considered ethical in the existing cultural context.)

Finally, as I said above, in order to be ethical, the non-work use must be responsible, in the following common sense meanings that were already mentioned in other answers:

  • It should not damage the computer beyond ordinary wear.
  • It should not consume computing resources that were needed for research.
  • It should not jeopardize the security of sensitive research information or of the workplace's technology infrastructure.
  • It should not violate any laws (e.g. downloading music and videos illegally would be absolutely not okay).
  • You won't wear out the battery if you keep the computer plugged in at home. Battery wear equals time used without charger. – gnasher729 Nov 19 '15 at 20:08
  • 1
    @gnasher729: Actually, the exact opposite is true: wired.com/2013/09/laptop-battery – Ben Voigt Nov 20 '15 at 2:31
5

You don't need to be specific when asking your supervisor or colleagues, just say that you are unsure of what you can and cannot do with the computer, and ask for some examples of things that are and are not allowed. Chances are that if watching movies or listening to music is not allowed, it will be one of the first things they will mention, since those are among the things most commonly done on a computer these days.

If they don't say that those things are forbidden, then go ahead and have fun. As a French person and former student in France (I have moved elsewhere for my PhD...) I can't see how this could be considered unethical (and, to be honest, your question made me chuckle a little).

  • Well, this is not specific of what not to do in France. – Sathyam Nov 18 '15 at 13:30
5

I don't know about France, but in the USA, some states have policies for publicly owned computers (which includes government agencies and state universities) and are subject to a de minimis personal use standard. That is, you are allowed to use the publicly owned computer for personal use if it does not interfere with your work and is "minimal". If the use is brief, infrequent, of little or no cost to the state, and is not disruptive, then a “de minimis” use of state resources would not be unethical. Typically bandwidth is included in this concept. So, if you are at home using your own bandwidth (e.g. to listen to the internet radio or watch an internet movie), you are not really using much in terms of state resources. However, as soon as you start streaming these things from work, or storing those files long-term on your work computer, you have overstepped your ethical bounds.

Though, your employers should already have their own policy in place regarding personal use.

protected by ff524 Nov 18 '15 at 17:44

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.