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Professor Helps Reveal J.K. Rowling


Earlier this week, it was revealed that crime novelist Robert Galbraith is in fact British author J.K. Rowling of the Harry Potter books. But how was Rowling's secret uncovered? WESA's Larkin Page-Jacobs reports, British journalists turned to an obscure source to confirm Rowling's authorship.

LARKIN PAGE-JACOBS, BYLINE: Patrick Juola is an associate professor of computer science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He also happens to be the inventor of a software program that analyzes documents. That might sound a little dry, but Juola says the program can decipher a writer's literary fingerprints and human characteristics, whether it's Jane Austen, Ralph Ellison or your fifth grade science teacher.

PATRICK JUOLA: There's a lot that can be learned about a person by studying the language that they use. I can tell who you are, but I can also tell how old you are, how well educated you are, are you the sort of person who likes to listen to music or who are you the sort of person who likes to go hit the gym?

PAGE-JACOBS: The clues are very, very subtle, so subtle you probably wouldn't notice them. Here's a passage from "The Cuckoo's Calling."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) It was an impossibility, akin to two identical snowflakes, this whey-faced man could have sprung from the same genetic pool as the bronze-skinned, colt-limbed, diamond-cut beauty that had been Lulu Landry.

PAGE-JACOBS: Did you catch that "as the" pairing, or the use of the word "this"? Concealed in the excerpt and the rest of the chapters are data indiscernible to the reader. Charged with the task of figuring out if J.K. Rowling is Robert Galbraith, Juola loaded e-books by five British authors into his program: Galbraith, Rowling, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and Val McDermid. He then searched for multiple indicators that would reveal the writer's distinctive use of language. Those markers included word combinations, word length and he calculated the most 100 common words.

JUOLA: They're words like "if," "and," "of," "the," "which" - function words. They're prepositions, they're conjunctions, they're pronouns, there's stuff like that. They don't really tell you much of anything, except for precisely that reason, they are so individual.

PAGE-JACOBS: As he looked at the numbers, Juola says a pattern emerged matching Galbraith and Rowling's writing.

JUOLA: So we can say it's probably Rowling, probably Rowling. Probably James, but maybe Rowling. But then when you get a later thing that says, no, it's not likely to be James at all, Rowling was the only person that they never said it wasn't likely to be.

PAGE-JACOBS: A crime fiction lover and Rowling fan, Juola was especially pleased with the outcome of this assignment, even if he feels a little guilty for outing her.

JUOLA: Nobody a week ago actually knew that Rowling had written this book except for Rowling herself and maybe her agent. It's always nice when you're looking at a mystery, when you get to the final chapter and you get a confession.

PAGE-JACOBS: For NPR News, I'm Larkin Page-Jacobs in Pittsburgh.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larkin got her start in radio as a newsroom volunteer in 2006. She went on to work for 90.5 as a reporter, Weekend Edition host, and Morning Edition producer. In 2009 she became 90.5's All Things Considered host, and in 2017 she was named Managing Editor. She moderates and facilitates public panels and forums, and has won regional and statewide awards for her reporting, including stories on art, criminal justice, domestic violence, and breaking news. Her work has been featured across Pennsylvania and nationally on NPR.
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