Back to the Cave of Shadows: Stylistic Fingerprints in Authorship Attribution

  1. 1. R. Harald Baayen

    University of Nijmegen

  2. 2. Fiona J. Tweedie

    University of Glasgow

  3. 3. Anneke Neijt

    University of Nijmegen

  4. 4. Hans van Halteren

    University of Nijmegen

  5. 5. Loes Krebbers

    Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics - University of Nijmegen

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Attempts to assign authorship of texts have a long history. They have been applied to influential texts such as the Bible, the works of Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers. A wide variety of techniques from many disciplines have been considered, from multivariate statistical analysis to neural networks and machine learning. Many different facets of texts have been analysed, from sentence and word length to the most common or the rarest words, or linguistic features. Holmes (1998) provides a chronological review of methods used in the pursuit of the authorial "fingerprint".

A key issue raised at the panel on non-traditional authorship attribution studies at the ACH-ALLC conference in Virginia, 1999, by Joe Rudman is whether authorial "fingerprints" do in fact exist. Is it truly the case that any two authors can always be distinguished on the basis of their style, so that stylometry can provide unique stylistic fingerprints for any author, given sufficient data?

Despite the long history of authorship attribution, almost all stylometric studies have been carried out on the assumption that stylometric fingerprinting is possible. However, often control texts are inappropriately chosen or not available. In addition, the imposition of editorial or publisher's style can distort the original words of the author. To our knowledge, no one has yet carried out a strictly controlled experiment of authorship attribution, with texts of known authorship being analysed between and within genres as well as between and within authors.

In this abstract we present such an experiment. The next section describes the design of the experiment. This is followed by a description of the analysis carried out, then by the results and our conclusions.

Experimental Design

The experiment was carried out in Dutch. Eight students of Dutch literature at the University of Nijmegen participated in the study. All the students were native speakers of Dutch, four were in their first year of study, and four were in their fourth year. The students were asked to write texts of around 1000 words.

Each student wrote in three genres: fiction, argument and description. Three texts were written in each genre, on the following topics.

Fiction: a retelling of the fairy tale of Little Red Riding-Hood, a detective story about a murder in the university, and a romance of chivalry.
Argument: defending a position about the television program 'Big Brother', the unification of Europe, and smoking.
Descriptive: football, the upcoming new millennium, and a book-review of the book read most recently by the participant.
The order of writing the texts was randomised so that practice effects were reduced as much as possible. We thus have nine texts from each participant, making a total of seventy-two texts in the analysis. The main question is whether it will be possible to group texts by their authors using the state-of-the-art methods of stylometry. A positive answer would support the hypothesis that stylistic fingerprints exist, even for authors with a very similar background and training. A negative answer would argue against the hypothesis that each author has her/his unique stylistic fingerprint.

There are many methods proposed for the analysis of texts in the attempt to identify authorship. In this abstract we describe three, and a fourth will be described at the conference. The first is that proposed by Burrows in a series of papers, see e.g. Burrows (1992), and used by many practitioners. Here we consider the frequencies of the forty most common words in the text. Principal components analysis is used to identify the most important aspects of the data.

The second method considered is that of letter frequency. Work by Ledger and Merriam indicates that the frequencies of letters used in texts may be indicators of authorship. We use the standardised frequencies of the 26 letters of the alphabet, with capital and lower-case letters being treated together. As above, the standardised frequencies are analysed using principal components analysis.

Thirdly, we consider methods of vocabulary richness. Tweedie and Baayen (1998) show that Orlov's Z and Yule's K represent two separate families of measures, measuring richness and repeat rate respectively. Plots of Z and K can be examined for structure.

Finally, we are planning to tag the text and to annotate the text for constituent structure. Baayen et al. (1996) show that increased accuracy in authorship attribution can be obtained by considering the syntactic, rather than lexical vocabulary. The results from this part of the analysis will be presented at the conference.

The texts written in this analysis are available from the authors upon request and, once all annotation has been completed, will be made available on the Web as well.


Each student was asked to write around 1000 words in each text. In fact, the average text length is 908 words. The shortest text has 628 words and the longest 1342. The texts were processed using the UNIX utility awk and the R statistics package.

We first consider all of the texts together. The Burrows analysis of the most common function words shows no authorial structure. Genre appears to be the most important factor, with fiction texts having negative scores on the first principal component, while argumentative and descriptive texts have positive scores on this axis. In addition, argumentative texts tend to have higher values on the second principal component than descriptive texts. It appears that fiction texts are more similar to other fiction texts than they are to other texts by the same author. Analysis of letter frequencies gives similar results, while the measures of vocabulary richness show some indication of structure with respect to the education level of the writer. Those in their first year of studies appear to have lower values of K, and hence a lower repeat-rate. In addition, higher values of Z are the province of first-year students also, indicating a greater richness of vocabulary. When all of these measures are incorporated into a single principal components analysis the genre structure becomes even clearer. Fiction texts are found to the lower left of a plot of the first and second principal component scores, while the other genres are found in the upper right of the graph.

Given the structure evident in the principal components analysis, it seems sensible to split the texts by genre and consider each separately. In each case, within fiction, argumentative, and descriptive texts, again the education level is the only factor to be apparent.


It is apparent from the results described above that in this study, differences in genre override differences in education level and authorship. The absence of any authorial structure in the analyses shows that it is not the case that each author necessarily has her/his own stylometric fingerprint. Texts can differ in style while originating from the same author (Baayen et al., 1996; Tweedie and Baayen, 1998), and texts can have very similar stylometric properties while being from different authors. Of course, it is possible that larger numbers of texts from our participants might have made it possible to discern authorial structure more clearly. Similarly, it may also be that more fine-grained methods than we have used will prove sensitive enough to consistently cluster texts by author even for the small number of texts in our study. We offer, therefore, our texts to the research community as a methodological challenge. Given what we have seen thus far, we believe our results must alert practitioners of authorship attribution to take extreme care when choosing control texts and drawing conclusions from their analyses.


Baayen, R. H., van Halteren, H. and Tweedie, F. J. (1996). Outside the cave of Shadows. Using syntactic annotation to enhance authorship attribution. Literary and Linguistic Computing 11(3):121-131.
Burrows, J. F. (1992) Not Unless You Ask Nicely: The Interpretative Nexus between Analysis and Information. Literary and Linguistic Computing 7(2):91-109.
Holmes, D. I. (1998) The evolution of stylometry in humanities scholarship. Literary and Linguistic Computing 13(3):111-117.
Ledger, G. and Merriam, T. (1994) Shakespeare, Fletcher, and the Two Noble Kinsmen. Literary and Linguistic Computing 9(3):235-248.
Tweedie, F. J. and Baayen, R. H. (1998). How Variable May a Constant Be? Measures of Lexical Richness in Perspective. Computers and the Humanities 32(5):323-352.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom

July 21, 2000 - July 25, 2000

104 works by 187 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ALLC/EADH (27), ACH/ICCH (20), ACH/ALLC (12)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None