Category Archives: Asa George Baker

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.

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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)