Does Size Matter? Authorship Attribution, Small Samples, Big Problem

  1. 1. Maciej Eder

    Pedagogical University of Krakow

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The aim of this study is to find a minimal
size of text samples for authorship attribution
that would provide stable results independent
of random noise. A few controlled tests for
different sample lengths, languages and genres
are discussed and compared. Although I focus
on Delta methodology, the results are valid for
many other multidimensional methods relying
on word frequencies and "nearest neighbor"
In the field of stylometry, and especially
in authorship attribution, the reliability of
the obtained results becomes even more
essential than the results themselves: failed
attribution is much better than false attribution
(cf. Love, 2002). However, while dozens of
outstanding papers deal with increasing the
effectiveness of current stylometric methods,
the problem of their reliability remains
somehow underestimated. Especially, the
simple yet fundamental question of the shortest
acceptable sample length for reliable attribution
has not been discussed convincingly.
In many attribution studies based on
short samples, despite their well-established
hypotheses, convincing choice of style-markers,
advanced statistics applied and brilliant results
presented, one cannot avoid a very simple
yet uneasy question: whether those impressive
results could be obtained
by chance
, or at
least positively affected by
? This
question can be also formulated in a different
way: if a cross-checking experiment with
numerous short samples were available, would
the results be just as satisfying?
1. Hypothesis
It is commonly known that word frequencies in
a corpus are random variables; the same can be
said about any written authorial text, like a novel
or poem. Being a probabilistic phenomenon,
word frequency strongly depends on the size
of the population (i.e. the size of the text used
in the study). Now, if the observed frequency
of a single word exhibits too much variation
for establishing an index of vocabulary richness
resistant to sample length (cf. Tweedie and
Baayen, 1998), a multidimensional approach –
based on several probabilistic word frequencies
– should be even more questionable.
On theoretical grounds, we can intuitively
assume that the smallest acceptable sample
length would be hundreds rather than dozens of
words. Next, we can expect that, in a series of
controlled authorship experiments with longer
and longer samples tested, the probability of
attribution success would at first increase very
quickly, indicating a strong correlation with the
current text size; but then, above a certain value,
further increase of input sample size would not
affect the effectiveness of the attribution. In any
attempt to find this critical point in terms of
statistical investigation, one should be aware,
however, that this point might depend – to some
extent – on the language, genre, or even the text
2. Experiment I: Words
A few corpora of known authorship were
prepared for different languages and genres:
for English, Polish, German, Hungarian, and
French novels, for English epic poetry, Latin
poetry (Ancient and Modern), Latin prose
(non-fiction), and for Ancient Greek epic
poetry; each contained a similar number of
texts to be attributed. The research procedure
was as follows. For each text in a given
corpus, 500 randomly chosen single words were
concatenated into a new sample. These new
samples were analyzed using the classical Delta
method as developed by Burrows (2002); the
percentage of attributive success was regarded
as a measure of effectiveness of the current
sample length. The same steps of excerpting new
samples from the original texts, followed by the
stage of "guessing" the correct authors, were
repeated for the length of 600, 700, 800, ...,
20000 words per sample.
The results for a corpus of 63 English novels
are shown on Fig. 1. The observed scores

(black points on the graph; grey points will be
discussed below) clearly indicate the existence
of a trend (solid line): the curve, climbing up
very quickly, tends to stabilize at a certain point,
which indicates the minimal sample size for the
best attributing rate. It becomes quite obvious
that samples shorter than 5000 words provide a
poor "guessing", because they can be immensely
affected by random noise. Below the size of
3000 words, the obtained results are simply
disastrous. Other analyzed corpora showed that
the critical point of attributive success could
be found between 5000 and 10000 words per
sample (and there was no significant difference
between inflected and non-inflected languages).
Better scores were obtained for the two poetic
corpora: English and Latin (3500 words per
sample were enough for good results), and,
surprisingly, the corpus of Latin prose (its
minimal effective sample size was of some 2500
words; cf. Fig. 2, black points).
3. Experiment II: Passages
The way of preparing samples by extracting
a mass of single words from the original
texts seems to be an obvious solution for the
problem of statistical representativeness. In
most attribution studies, however, shorter or
of disputed works are usually
analyzed (either randomly chosen from the
entire text, or simply truncated to the desired
size). The purpose of the current experiment
was to test the attribution effectiveness of this
typical sampling. The whole procedure was
repeated step by step as in the previous test,
but now, instead of collecting individual words,
sequences of 500 words (then 600, 700, ...,
20000) were excerpted randomly from the
original texts.
Three main observations could be made here:
1. For each corpus analyzed, the effectiveness of
such samples (excerpted passages) was
worse than the scores described in the former
experiment, relying on the "bag-of-words" type
of sample (cf. Fig. 1 and 2, grey points). 2.
The more inflected the language, the smaller
the difference in correct attribution between
both types of samples, the "passages" and the
"words": the greatest in the English novels
(cf. Fig. 1, grey points vs. black), the smallest
in the Hungarian corpus. 3. For "passages",
the dispersion of the observed scores was
wider than for "words", indicating
the possible significance of the influence of
random noise. This effect might be due to
the obvious differences in word distribution
between narrative and dialogue parts in novels
(cf. Hoover, 2001); however, the same effect was
equally strong for poetry (Latin and English)
and non-literary prose (Latin).
4. Experiment III: Chunks
At times we encounter an attribution problem
where extant works by a disputed author
are doubtless too short for being analyzed
in separate samples. The question is, then,
if a concatenated
of short poems,
epigrams, sonnets, etc. in one sample (cf.
Eder and Rybicki, 2009) would reach the
effectiveness comparable to that presented
above? And, if concatenated samples are
suitable for attribution tests, do we need to
worry about the size of the original texts
constituting the joint sample?
The third experiment, then, was designed as
follows. In 12 iterations, several word-chunks
were randomly selected from each text into
8192-word samples: 4096 bi-grams, 2048 tetra-
grams, 1024 chunks of 8 words in length, 512
of 16 words, and so on, up to 2 chunks of
4096 words. Thus, all the samples in question
were 8192 words long. The obtained results were
very similar for all the languages and genres
tested. As shown in Fig. 3 (for the corpus of
Polish novels), the effectiveness of "guessing"
depends to some extent on the word-chunk size
used. Although the attributive scores are slightly
worse for long chunks within a sample (4096
words or so) than for bi-grams, 4-word chunks
etc., every chunk size could be acceptable to
constitute a concatenated sample.
However, although this seems to be an
optimistic result, we should remember that this
test would not be feasible on really short poems.
Epigrams, sonnets etc. are often masterpieces
of concise language, with a domination of verbs
over adjectives and so on, and with a strong
tendency to compression of content. For that
reason, further investigation is needed here.
5. Conclusions
The scores presented in this study, as obtained
with classical Delta procedure, would be slightly

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

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Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

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  • Language: English
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