If You Steal From One Author, It’s Plagiarism; If You Steal From Many, It’s Research

Wilson Mizner? Ralph Foss? Steven Wright? Joseph Cummings Chase? Asa George Baker? Leslie Henson? Tom Lehrer? Bob Oliver? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some of the websites I come across seem to produce their content simply by using cut and paste. They do not even bother to collect information from multiple sources. I am reminded of a very funny one-liner:

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

In recent times these words have been credited to the brilliantly out-of-kilter comedian Steven Wright, but I have also seen the quip attributed to the playwright and confidence man Wilson Mizner. Could you investigate this saying?

Quote Investigator: An enjoyable precursor of the expression was printed in 1820. In the following humorous statement from Reverend Charles Caleb Colton the era of the material being appropriated was considered decisive. Thanks to a commenter named Jutta for pointing out this citation: 1

If we steal thoughts from the moderns, it will be cried down as plagiarism; if from the ancients, it will cried up as erudition.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1932 in a journal called “Special Libraries” which reported on a talk given at an annual conference for librarians. Ralph Foss, the director of sales at the McGraw-Hill publishing company, presented a version of the saying and ascribed it to an anonymous individual: 2

I am reminded of the man who was asked what plagiarism was. He said: “It is plagiarism when you take something out of a book and use it as your own. If you take it out of several books then it is research.”

In 1938 a version of the saying was credited to Wilson Mizner in a book titled “Tales of a Wayward Inn” by Frank Case. The famed Algonquin Round Table met in a hotel that was owned and managed by Case, and his memoir described his experiences as a host. Note that Mizner died in 1933 several years before the book was published: 3

As Wilson Mizner says, “When you take stuff from one writer it’s plagiarism, but when you take from many writers it’s called research.”

In the same year, 1938, Joseph Cummings Chase, a prominent portraitist and art teacher, wrote a piece in “The Commentator” magazine that included a variant of the quotation. Chase was head of the Art department at Hunter College in the 1930s: 4

When a research professor takes pen in hand to do a book on Art he writes on and on without any evidences of the ability to stop. By and by out come five or six hundred more pages largely culled from the tomes of the research lads before him. On the title page of most of the books on Art should be printed, “If you steal from one person it’s plagiarism: if you steal from three persons it’s research.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The saying was further spread in 1938 via newspapers such as the Santa Fe New Mexican. 5 A short filler item replicated the adage and credited it to “The Commentator” without mentioning Chase’s name. The Santa Fe paper was dated September 29, 1938 while “The Commentator” issue was dated October. This dating sequence occurred because “The Commentator” was available to readers before its cover date:

IT’S AN ART
(The Commentator Magazine)

On the title page of most of the books on art should be printed: “If you steal from one person it’s plagiarism; if you steal from three persons it’s research.”

A book titled “Professional Writing” published in 1938 by a teacher at the University of Oklahoma presented advice to future authors. The teacher presented an entertaining variant expression that matched the theme of the quotation: 6

He apparently followed the advice of Vida, who told beginners to steal from every source. It is the same in literature as in certain other walks of life: as the saying goes—the man who robs one bank is a common thief; the man who robs a hundred is a financier. The moral is, in literature, not to steal from one author, but to learn from many, Plagiarism is not only a crime, but a mark of stupidity, like robbing a country bank.

In December 1938 an instance of the quotation appeared in Word Study, a periodical from G. & C. Merriam Company which was best known for publishing the Merriam-Webster dictionaries. The saying was ascribed to an unnamed or archetypal librarian: 7

Asa G. Baker quotes a librarian’s distinction between plagiarism and research: “If you wrote a paper and quoted without credit from a single book, it would be plagiarism; but if you quoted from three or four, it would be research.”

Asa George Baker was the chairman of the board of directors and former president of the G. & C. Merriam Company. However, the editor of Word Study revisited this topic in 1939 and changed the attribution from a librarian to Mizner: 8

According to Frank Case’s Tales of a Wayward Inn, the saying quoted in a recent issue of WORD STUDY originated with Wilson Mizner, and ran as follows: “When you take stuff from one writer, it’s plagiarism, but when you take it from many writers, it’s called research.”

In 1939 a book about marketing products in Canada was published. One chapter was written by Henry King, a market researcher, and he claimed that the saying was used by a popular English music hall comedian named Leslie Henson: 9

“If you get information from one source,” said Leslie Henson in his recent London show, “it’s called plagiarism; if you get it from two or more sources, it’s called research.”

In 1941 a Hollywood gossip columnist writing in the Los Angeles Times attributed the jest to a person named Bob Oliver: 10

Bob Oliver suggests a simple rule-of-thumb for would-be movie scenarists.
“Just remember,” says he, “if you steal from one man, it’s plagiarism.  If you steal from several, it’s research.”

In 1942 The New Yorker magazine published an extensive multi-part profile of Wilson Mizner which contained several witty sayings ascribed to Mizner including the following: 11

If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.

Tom Lehrer, the recording artist and satirist, released a song in the 1950s titled Lobachevsky that contained the following lyrics: 12

Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don’t shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.

In 1974 a book review in the Los Angeles Times discussed Tom Lehrer’s song: 13

. . . reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s song about the Great Lobachevsky. One axiom of the mythical mathematician’s scholarly work was that if you steal from one source you are committing plagiarism; if you steal from two sources, you are providing documentation; and if you steal from three or more sources, it is – presto – “original research.”

The Lobachevsky referred to in the song is not mythical. Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky was a renowned Russian mathematician, but Lehrer was not being critical. The Wikipedia entry for Lobachevsky cites the liner notes of a 2010 album by Lehrer and states: 14

According to Lehrer, the song is “not intended as a slur on [Lobachevsky’s] character” and the name was chosen “solely for prosodic reasons”.

The joke was attributed to comedian Steven Wright at the MustShareJokes website. 15The saying was also credited to Wright in a 2008 book in the field of Academic Medicine. 16

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism — to steal from many is research.

In conclusion, the earliest evidence found by QI was dated 1932. The joke was told by Ralph Foss of McGraw-Hill publishing, but his phrasing left the ascription anonymous. In 1938 the quip was attributed to Wilson Mizner who died in 1933. If Mizner did tell the joke then it was in the same time period as the earliest known citation or earlier. Joseph Cummings Chase also used a version of the saying in a magazine essay in 1938. Perhaps more evidence will be located in the future.

(Great thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the 1939 citation in “Canadian Marketing Problems” and the 1941 citation in the Los Angeles Times. Also, special thanks to Stephen Goranson for obtaining scans from The Commentator magazine.)

Update History: On March 9, 2013 this article was rewritten; the original text was combined with a post containing updated material. Footnotes were reformatted to use numerical labels. The 1820 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1820, Lacon: or, Many Things in Few Words; Addressed to Those Who Think by Rev. C. C. Colton (Charles Caleb Colton), Fifth Edition, Quote Page 229, Published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1932 July-August, Special Libraries, “Cooperation Between Special Libraries and Publishers” by Ralph Foss of McGraw-Hill Company, Page 281, Special Libraries Association, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  3. 1938, Tales of a Wayward Inn by Frank Case, Chapter: Juniors and the Jani, Page 248, Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York. (Verified on paper in Fourth Printing 1939)
  4. 1938 October, The Commentator magazine, “Do You Call THAT Art?” by Joseph Cummings Chase, Page 26, Column 2, Payson Publishing, Inc., New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Stephen Goranson for obtaining scans via Interlibrary Loan)
  5. 1938 September 29, Santa Fe New Mexican, “It’s An Art”, Page 4, Column 1, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1938, Professional Writing by Stanley Vestal (pseudonym of Walter S. Campbell), Pages 88-89, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper in Third Printing 1944)
  7. 1938 December, Word Study, editor Max J. Herzberg, Random Comment, Page 4, Volume XIV, Number 3, G. & C. Merriam Company, Springfield, Massachusetts (Verified on paper)
  8. 1939 February, Word Study edited by Max J. Herzberg, Random Comment, Page 1, Column 2, Volume XIV, Number 4, G. & C. Merriam Company – Springfield, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1939, Canadian Marketing Problems: Ten Essays edited by H. R. Kemp, Chapter Essay: New Problems in Advertising and Steps Towards Their Solution by Henry King, Page 80, The University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1941 March 17, Los Angeles Times, Jimmie Fidler in Hollywood, Page 24, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  11. 1942 October 10, The New Yorker, “Profiles: Legend of a Sport – Part I” by Alva Johnston, Page 21, Column 3, F-R Publishing Corporation , New York. (New Yorker online archive)
  12. Songs by Tom Lehrer, Lobachevsky: Side 1: Track 6. Performance of Lobachevsky by Tom Lehrer on YouTube. (Accessed March 9, 2013) link Wikipedia entry for Songs by Tom Lehrer with track listing. (Accessed March 9, 2013) link
  13. 1974 August 18, Los Angeles Times, Book Talk: A Leaf From History’s Book by Digby Diehl, Page O65, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  14. Wikipedia entry for Nikolai Lobachevsky: (Liner notes, “The Tom Lehrer Collection”, Shout! Factory, 2010.”) (Not verified by QI; Based on footnote in Wikipedia; Accessed 2010 September 20) link
  15. Steven Wright, MustShareJokes website (Accessed 2010 September 19) link
  16. 2008, Pearls for Leaders in Academic Medicine by Emery A. Wilson, Jay A. Perman, D. Kay Clawson, Page 28, Springer, New York. (Google Books preview) link

2 thoughts on “If You Steal From One Author, It’s Plagiarism; If You Steal From Many, It’s Research

  1. Jutta: Thank you for visiting and sharing your helpful citations. The post has been updated and now includes the 1820 precursor citation which you located.

    This comment was rewritten on March 10, 2013 after the main post was updated.

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