A New Procedure for Author Attribution

  1. 1. Roy Felton

    Business Computing and Economics Department - Manukau Institute of Technology

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The Bayesian approach of Mosteller and Wallace1
to the question of the authorship of the Federalist
Papers can be applied to the situation of disputed
writing(s) being assigned to one or other of a
limited number of known authors, each of whom
has a known style. Another quite distinct situation
frequently occurs in the case of classical and other
ancient writings. Here there is often an undisputed
corpus of texts (by a known or unknown author or
group of authors) with another text or texts (hereafter treated in the singular only), which has been
traditionally linked to this body but its authorship
has been disputed on critical grounds. The problem is to determine whether this disputed text is
close enough in style to that of the undisputed texts
in order for it to belong to this group and hence
presumably have the same author or group of
authors. (Whether the corpus itself exhibits a unity
of style between texts as well as the more usual
assumption of unity of style within each text is
This problem can be handled by using contrasts on
a random effects linear model. Either means or
proportions (binary variables) can be used. The
technique has a multivariate variant. The linear
model may be generalised to include any number
of factors such as text, genre and subject matter
effects. Factors could be fixed or random, crossed
or nested. Text is to be regarded as a random effect,
but genre and subject matter as fixed. Genre and
subject matter could be crossed or perhaps nested,
whereas text and genre would be nested. At least
two texts of undisputed provenance (not necessarily of the same length) are required. Usually
contrasts (a linear combination of means with a
zero sum for the coefficients of the means) are
used with a fixed effects model to test hypotheses.
However, in the above situation with ancient writings, the number of potential texts by an author
may be conceived of as unlimited and hence a
random effect is appropriate. Since only some
texts of this author are extant or indeed ever written, a contrast comparing only the extant ones
against the disputed one is all that a researcher
would probably be interested in. In the case of a
random effect, its associated measure of variability (which is always made to be non negative) may
be estimated from all the texts and used in the
denominator of the test statistic ensuring that a
more conservative test results. This would help to
counter the well documented fact that frequently
a stylometric test will reject an undisputed text2
By making allowance for other sources of variation as well as that due to sampling, confounding
of effects will be reduced resulting in a statistically
superior methodology. The use of contrasts on a
random effects model appears to be unique in
stylometric research and possibly elsewhere as
A Bayesian type approach may be utilised to integrate out parameters, the estimates of which might
be based on too little data (usually because the
number of undisputed texts is small) to give very
precise estimates. Autocorrelation, both within
and between texts, may be incorporated into the
linear model. Critical values can be obtained by
simulation, which enables the case of discrete
variables to be catered for in a straightforward
manner as well as various types of autocorrelation.
During simulation the effect of changing blocksize (number of words of running text that each
observation is based on) but not text length was
examined, noting that power was substantially
increased when instead of 100-word blocks, 25-
word blocks were used.
Words may be examined individually also (blocksize of 1 word) giving rise to binary variables.
These may be handled in an analogous way to
count, derived or other variables. In this case it is
more appropriate to estimate the text effect variability using only the undisputed writings.
The above approach of using contrasts on a random effects model was developed to solve a simply formulated problem drawn from the Christian
Scriptures. There has been a somewhat persistent
stream of critical thought this century which has
sought to find an underlying source for a significant amount of the narrative portions of John’s
gospel. One proposal for a source for the synoptic-like miracle stories in this gospel, that has
reasonably precisely defined limits, is Fortna’s
Gospel of Signs (hereafter FGOS).3
This reconstruction of the somewhat shadowy and elusive
so-called signs source seems to enjoy a certain
amount of support and its Greek text is available
enabling a detailed statistical examination to be
carried out.
John’s gospel was divided into three equal sized
main sections, each of 30 blocks of 100 words in
each. The three sections were F (derived from
FGOS), N (derived from the narrative portions of
the gospel) and D (derived from the discourse
portions of the gospel). Each block began at the
beginning of a sentence, which for this investigation was defined as a string of words terminated
by fullstops, semicolons or question marks. Sentences that contained identifiable quotations from
the Hebrew Scriptures were omitted from the count.
Twenty-four simple-to-measure variables were
used to measure style. Variables 1-10 were the
number of words in each block of 1 letter, 2 letters
up to 10 letters long. Variable 11 was the number
of definite articles beginning with a tau. Variable
12 was the number of other words beginning with
a tau. Variable 13 was the number of definite
articles. Variable 14 was the number of indefinite
and relative pronouns. Variable 15 was the mean
word position of the first noun in a sentence (or
part sentence). Variable 16 was the number of
sentences (or part sentences). Variables 17-24
were the number of V-V, V-N, V-O, N-V, N-N,
N-O, O-V and O-N transitions where V = verb, N
= noun and O = other.
Variables 1, 3, 8, 11 and 13 were initially removed
since they were highly autocorrelated although
they were restored later when autocorrelation was
built into the model. A modification of the usual
pooled t test statistic was used to test the hypothesis whether the style of F differed significantly
from the other two making allowance for the fact
that these two themselves might differ significantly from each other. Variables 3, 7, 14, 16, and 23
were judged to be significant at the 5% level.
Because, if the N and D portions of the gospel were
written at the same time, the estimate of the variability of the text effect would in fact be measuring
that of the genre effect since the text effect would
be non existent, it was decided to include in the
study the first Johannine letter (referred to subsequently as J) which was divided into 19 blocks
of 100 words. It is almost certain J was written
later than N. Hence N and J were used to estimate
the variability of text effect which because of
confounding included genre effect also. This variability was then used in the modified t test statistic to see if F and N (both belonging to the
narrative genre) were significantly different. Since, if anything, the variability was inflated by
genre this approach would be conservative. Variables 8, 15 and probably 16 were significant at the
5% level. The estimate of the inter-text variability
was based on only two observations, meaning it
would not be very precise. Since the critical value
for the test statistic was a function of its true value
it was decided to integrate this parameter out
which resulted in no change in variables that were
judged to be significant. However when further
the test statistic was conditioned on its observed
value, variable 8 and probably 10 were now significant at the 5% level.
Variables 1-14 and 17-24 may also be regarded as
binary - that is each word for variables 1-14 or pair
of words for variables 17-24 may be coded as 1 or
0 depending on whether the particular property is
present or not. The above stages of analysis were
carried out using a binary random effects model
with very similar results.
This investigation concluded that the balance of
probability was that the style of F differed from
that of N and D and indeed J by more than could
be expected by chance even when an effort to take
genre into account was made. However the decision was not as clear cut as one might have wished.
If more undisputed texts (say 8) were available,
the result could well have been quite significant.
Also if more sophisticated (linguistically speaking) variables were utilised, a more decisive result could very well eventuate. Because a statistically significant test statistic was obtained with
some of the 24 variables chosen, under the Baconian rule of the greater force of one counter-example than that of several supporting examples, it
must be concluded that earlier, less statistically
sophisticated stylometric investigations of John’s
gospel, which demonstrated its unity, have been
superseded by this study.
Because it appears that numerous scholars champion either the unity of or some form of source
theory for John’s gospel it seems appropriate that
the results of this investigation, while consistently
supporting sources in a statistically significant
sense, do so to a measured degree only, suggesting
that New Testament scholars have not been completely misled in their more intuitive and less
statistically sophisticated evaluation of the style of
John’s gospel. This investigation does not establish whether all the signs source was reproduced
in the gospel or not or indeed whether that part
which was, has been done so in a faithful manner.
What has been demonstrated is that Fortna’s reconstruction has a style sufficiently different from
other narrative in the gospel to suggest a different
1. Mosteller, F. and D. L. Wallace. Inference and
Disputed Authorship: The Federalist. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1964.
2. Felton, T. R. Stylometry - An Example. Conference Proceedings. Operations Research Society of New Zealand / New Zealand
Statistical Association Annual Conference
(1994): 350-3.
3. Fortna, R. T. The Gospel of Signs: A Reconstruction of the Narrative Source Underlying
the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1970.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Bergen

Bergen, Norway

June 25, 1996 - June 29, 1996

147 works by 190 authors indexed

Scott Weingart has print abstract book that needs to be scanned; certain abstracts also available on dh-abstracts github page. (https://github.com/ADHO/dh-abstracts/tree/master/data)

Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/19990224202037/www.hd.uib.no/allc-ach96.html

Series: ACH/ICCH (16), ALLC/EADH (23), ACH/ALLC (8)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC