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Texts To Reveal Whodunnit

Texts to Reveal 'Whodunnit'

New University of Leicester forensic linguistic study has applications in phone text analysis, cyberstalking and criminal investigations

KEY MEDIA INFORMATION:

  • Images of researchers Tim Grant and Kim Drake available from pressoffice@le.ac.uk
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Psychologists at the University of Leicester are to investigate texting language to provide new tools for criminal investigation.

The forensic linguistic study based in the Forensic Section of the School of Psychology will examine how well an individual can be identified by their texting style.

A prior case where this was used was the investigation of murder a few years ago. At the 2002 trial an alibi was broken based on the evidence that the murderer and not the victim had sent crucial messages from her phone. Text analyses revealed that the texts had not been written by the victim herself, but that they had been faked to deflect suspicion from the killer as there were a number of differences in the texting styles between the victim and murderer. Linguistic analysis is therefore a useful tool which can reveal secrets within the criminal investigation, which otherwise would not be apparent. This present study aims to develop the technique further by investigating text language and style.

The innovative six-month study will assess similarities and differences in texting style, between texts sent by individuals and within and between networks of people who frequently text one another. The researchers are inviting ordinary people to help them with the study by completing an anonymous on-line questionnaire. Although forensic authorship analysis is a growing area of research, this is the first study to focus on mobile phone texting.

The research is being conducted by Dr. Tim Grant, forensic linguist and Kim Drake, a forensic researcher, at the University's School of Psychology.

Dr Grant said: "We are looking for volunteers to participate in a unique forensic linguistic study, assessing similarities and differences in text messaging style."

"This piece of Leicester research will have important applications for forensic investigation - for example, in the past text messages have been used as an alibi to murder. Being able to say who wrote a particular text message sent from a particular phone has many potential forensic applications."

"As texting is both a relatively new mode of communication and a particularly informal way of using language, there is not a strong expectation that texters will follow linguistic conventions. This freedom therefore allows for significant individual differences in text messaging style, and this can be used to identify the text's authors."

"No previous study has systematically studied the linguistic consistency and variation in individuals' texting style. This will also be the first study to examine the influence of peer groups, upon writing style and texting language. Specifically, the study will examine how one person's style is influenced by texts received from their friends."

"Forensic authorship analysis has also been used in cases involving disputed confession, the sending of abusive or threatening emails or letters and in cases of copyright infringement."

The researchers are looking to recruit at least 100 volunteers who will each be asked to contribute 10 text messages. Participants will visit the following website: http://www.le.ac.uk/pc/aa/ked6/index.html to fill in the relevant details. The study is anonymous, so participation is confidential and people have the right to withdraw from the study at any time if they so wish. The texts contributed to the study will be analysed using linguistic and statistical techniques and results are to be submitted to the Journal of Speech Language and the Law.

If you are interested in participating either visit the website directly or if you have any further queries please contact:

Dr. Tim Grant EMAIL: TG21@le.ac.uk

Note to news desk

For more information, please call Dr. Tim Grant on 0116 252 3658. You must cite University of Leicester in any report.

Methods to be used.

The sampling strategy for attracting participants is known as snowballing. This is where one individual participates and we ask them to contact their friends about the study, who subsequently contact their friends and so on. This should ensure that we get groups of friends who regularly text one another and thus allows us to compare one group against the other, as well as individuals within each different group. Hypothetically, there should be more similarity in texting language within groups than between two different groups, or a group and an independent individual.

The linguistic analysis will concentrate on individuals' texting strategies and vocabulary, e.g. the examples (1)-(4) below show four different texting styles and vocabulary that may be analysed.

  1. "Came to see K bumped into B 2."
  2. "Shall we get last bus to station"
  3. "Pls cn i meet. Tried fonin 4 u."
  4. "C U L8R"

Often, individual differences can be seen by just looking at the text, for example, it is likely that the first two texts were created using a predictive texting function. The reason for this supposition is the resultant word deletions (e.g. "Came" rather than "I came" or "get last bus" for "get the last bus") that can be seen in texts 1 and 2. On the other hand, the last two texts use more abbreviated text language with vowel deletions ("Pls"), as well as letter and number homophone substitutions ("C" for "see" and "8" for the middle syllable of "later").

What's important to note is that texting strategies are likely to remain relatively constant within individuals and, along with the actual vocabulary used by an individual, may help identify the writer of a text.

The statistical analyses will use methods developed for linking crimes committed by serial offenders. These methods involve the use of, what are known as, coefficients of similarity (an example of which is the Jaccard's coefficient) which will be used to identify the salient linguistic features of texts by a single individual. That is, it will identify the major differences in the texting strategies and vocabulary across individuals. The same statistical techniques will be applied to identify differences between groups.

ABOUT THE RESEARCHERS:

Dr Tim Grant is a British citizen, was born in Singapore and is 36 years old. He is a lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the Forensic Section of the School of Psychology at the University of Leicester in England. He has a PhD in forensic authorship analysis and teaches mostly on postgraduate courses in Forensic Psychology by distance learning. He has worked in forensic linguistics for more than 10 years. In the criminal field he has provided expert evidence in cases involving terrorist conspiracy, murder and stalking, working for both police and defence. He has also assisted in civil cases of literary and student plagiarism and intellectual property theft. Published research in this area includes Grant & Baker (2001) Identifying reliable, valid markers of authorship in Speech Language and the Law - The International Journal of Forensic Linguistics. In addition to authorship analysis work he carries out research with the UK police examining the language occurring between offender and victims in serious sexual assaults and rape.

Kim Drake was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and is 24 years old. In June 2005 she gained a bachelors degree in psychology at the University of Leicester, and since February 2006 has been embarking upon a forensic research PhD at the School of Psychology, University of Leicester. In between graduating and commencing her PhD, she led a collaborative project examining the influence of life events of interrogative suggestibility, the results from which have been submitted to Psychology, Crime and Law. Her doctoral research, therefore, focuses on individual differences in interrogative suggestibility, specifically the impact of childhood and life adversity on susceptibility to suggestion, negative feedback, and false confessions during interview. In addition, since June 2006, she has also become involved with other areas of forensic research, namely forensic linguistics. Articles about her previous research have been published extensively in the media, including the Financial Times, the BBC and Scientific American Mind. She has also presented her research at numerous psychology and law conferences.

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