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Power-law distributions in empirical data

Article by Aaron Clauset and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi and M. E. J. Newman
  • Published in 2007
  • Added on
Power-law distributions occur in many situations of scientific interest and have significant consequences for our understanding of natural and man-made phenomena. Unfortunately, the detection and characterization of power laws is complicated by the large fluctuations that occur in the tail of the distribution -- the part of the distribution representing large but rare events -- and by the difficulty of identifying the range over which power-law behavior holds. Commonly used methods for analyzing power-law data, such as least-squares fitting, can produce substantially inaccurate estimates of parameters for power-law distributions, and even in cases where such methods return accurate answers they are still unsatisfactory because they give no indication of whether the data obey a power law at all. Here we present a principled statistical framework for discerning and quantifying power-law behavior in empirical data. Our approach combines maximum-likelihood fitting methods with goodness-of-fit tests based on the Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistic and likelihood ratios. We evaluate the effectiveness of the approach with tests on synthetic data and give critical comparisons to previous approaches. We also apply the proposed methods to twenty-four real-world data sets from a range of different disciplines, each of which has been conjectured to follow a power-law distribution. In some cases we find these conjectures to be consistent with the data while in others the power law is ruled out.

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BibTeX entry

@article{Powerlawdistributionsinempiricaldata,
	title = {Power-law distributions in empirical data},
	abstract = {Power-law distributions occur in many situations of scientific interest and
have significant consequences for our understanding of natural and man-made
phenomena. Unfortunately, the detection and characterization of power laws is
complicated by the large fluctuations that occur in the tail of the
distribution -- the part of the distribution representing large but rare events
-- and by the difficulty of identifying the range over which power-law behavior
holds. Commonly used methods for analyzing power-law data, such as
least-squares fitting, can produce substantially inaccurate estimates of
parameters for power-law distributions, and even in cases where such methods
return accurate answers they are still unsatisfactory because they give no
indication of whether the data obey a power law at all. Here we present a
principled statistical framework for discerning and quantifying power-law
behavior in empirical data. Our approach combines maximum-likelihood fitting
methods with goodness-of-fit tests based on the Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistic
and likelihood ratios. We evaluate the effectiveness of the approach with tests
on synthetic data and give critical comparisons to previous approaches. We also
apply the proposed methods to twenty-four real-world data sets from a range of
different disciplines, each of which has been conjectured to follow a power-law
distribution. In some cases we find these conjectures to be consistent with the
data while in others the power law is ruled out.},
	url = {http://arxiv.org/abs/0706.1062v2 http://arxiv.org/pdf/0706.1062v2},
	year = 2007,
	author = {Aaron Clauset and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi and M. E. J. Newman},
	comment = {},
	urldate = {2018-09-24},
	archivePrefix = {arXiv},
	eprint = {0706.1062},
	primaryClass = {physics.data-an},
	collections = {Drama!,Probability and statistics}
}