Published: Oct. 23, 2019

Real-world networks are often claimed to be scale free, meaning that the fraction of nodes with degree k follows a power law kα, a pattern with broad implications for the structure and dynamics of complex systems. However, the universality of scale-free networks remains controversial. Here, we organize different definitions of scale-free networks and construct a severe test of their empirical prevalence using state-of-the-art statistical tools applied to nearly 1000 social, biological, technological, transportation, and information networks. Across these networks, we find robust evidence that strongly scale-free structure is empirically rare, while for most networks, log-normal distributions fit the data as well or better than power laws. Furthermore, social networks are at best weakly scale free, while a handful of technological and biological networks appear strongly scale free. These findings highlight the structural diversity of real-world networks and the need for new theoretical explanations of these non-scale-free patterns.