Tag Archives: Steven Wright

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

Wilson Mizner? Steven Wright? Wallace Notestein? Ralph Foss? 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 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 strong match identified by QI appeared in November 1929 within a newsletter of the U.S. Forestry Service in California. Wallace Notestein, a Professor of English History at Yale University, received credit. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

WHAT IS RESEARCH?
To Prof. Notestein of the Yale faculty is attributed the following definition for research: “If you copy from one book, that’s plagiarism; if you copy from many books, that’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. 1929 November 1, California District News Letter, Volume 10, Number 44, Quote Page 4, Published by U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans from Library System of University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California)