You may already be familiar with the story behind the story of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a novel published under the name Robert Galbraith. Turns out, there is no Robert Galbraith. The story was actually written by J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame. Ms. Rowling hoped to publish the new novel without the Potter baggage, but she was foiled by Patrick Juola, a professor at Duquesne University.

Stylometrists are always stylish. Prof. Juola (left) dressed as GQ man Abe Lincoln.

Prof. Juola is a mathematician who created a computer program–the Java Graphical Authorship Attribution Program (Jgaap)–that can recognize writing tics undetectable by human readers. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. Juola “loaded an electronic version of Cuckoo into Jgaap, along with several other [of Ms. Rowling's] texts.” The program then

compare[d] the sample texts to the Galbraith text using four variables: word-length distribution; the use of common words like “the” and “of”; recurring-word pairings; and the distribution of “character 4-grams,” or groups of four adjacent characters, words, or parts of words.

The findings were not unequivocal, but they made a pretty strong case for Ms. Rowling as the author of Cuckoo. Confronted with this and other evidence, Ms. Rowling admitted her authorship of the book. She told an interviewer that she would have liked to remain anonymous for a while longer stating that, “Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience… It has been wonderful to publish without hype and expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

Stylometry, which is the application of the study of linguistic style, has broader uses than just outing famous authors. It is often used to attribute authorship to anonymous or disputed documents. It has legal as well as academic and literary applications, ranging from the question of the authorship of Shakespeare (whose works were obviously written by Francis Bacon!) to forensic linguistics. It also has application to the world of asylum.

Prof. Juola reports that he used his techniques to help an asylum seeker prove that he was the author of several politically charged articles that had been published anonymously on the internet. According to the Professor’s website, “Using statistical linguistics, we were able to analyze the writing style against an ad-hoc collection of distractor authors and to establish using non-parametric rank-order statistics that the documents had indeed been written by the [asylum] seeker.” In other words, Prof. Juola demonstrated a statistical likelihood that the asylum seeker authored the articles in question. Apparently, this evidence was helpful in the case, as the Immigration Judge granted political asylum.

I was interested to read about Prof. Juola’s work, as I faced a similar issue for an Ethiopian asylum seeker some years ago. He claimed that he wrote newspaper articles under a pseudonym, and those articles were offensive to the government. Somehow, his identity was exposed after he left the country, and he feared persecution if he returned. We needed evidence of the client’s authorship, and so I asked him for the usual stuff–rough drafts of the articles, a letter from the newspaper editor, letters from other people who knew about what he had written. In the end, we had to rely on letters from people who knew him and on his own testimony. Fortunately, it proved to be enough, and he received asylum.

Had I known about Prof. Juola, perhaps I could have used him to assist us in the case (though generally, my clients do not have a lot of money for expert witnesses). While the professor’s analysis cannot demonstrate with 100% certainty that a particular person wrote a particular article or book, Prof. Joula could possibly provide additional support to help corroborate a claim. In a close case, this could make the difference between a denial and a grant.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: