Commentary

Who Wrote This?: Modern Forensic Authorship Analysis as a Model for Valid Forensic Science

Janet Ainsworth and Patrick Juola

Law needs forensic science in order to assist judges and juries in accurate fact-finding. But law also needs a dependable way to distinguish between astronomy and astrology, science and pseudoscience. What is needed in order for forensic sciences to fulfill their promise in helping to achieve justice is a commitment to what Jennifer Mnookin and her colleagues have called a “research culture” in forensic practice. In this article, we have presented an example of the development of a robust research culture in the field of forensic authorship attribution. The recent comprehensive reports on the state of forensic science by the National Academy of Sciences and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology stressed the value that validity testing brings to forensics; we strongly endorse that position with respect to forensic authorship attribution.

Mature sciences are evidence-driven and welcome validity testing as fundamental to scientific progress. Erin Murphy, who has written extensively on forensic DNA evidence, points out that “[G]ood science is a dynamic process, not a test to be taken and then forgotten once passed.” The hallmark of healthy forensic science is a commitment to continual improvements in techniques and methodologies. The research culture that has developed in authorship attribution analysis should serve as a model for other forensic practices to emulate. If that happens, the resulting improvements in accuracy and reliability that we have seen and continue to see in authorship analysis may well be replicated in other forensic fields, to the benefit of overall accuracy and fairness in our legal system.