Many networks have been reported to be scale-free, although statistical analysis has refuted many of these claims and seriously questioned others. Preferential attachment and the fitness model have been proposed as mechanisms to explain conjectured power law degree distributions in real networks.

In studies of the networks of citations between scientific papers, Derek de Solla Price showed in 1965 that the number of links to papers´i.e., the number of citations they receive´had a heavy-tailed distribution following a Pareto distribution or power law, and thus that the citation network is scale-free. He did not however use the term "scale-free network", which was not coined until some decades later. In a later paper in 1976, Price also proposed a mechanism to explain the occurrence of power laws in citation networks, which he called "cumulative advantage" but which is today more commonly known under the name preferential attachment.

The most notable characteristic in a scale-free network is the relative commonness of vertices with a degree that greatly exceeds the average. The highest-degree nodes are often called "hubs", and are thought to serve specific purposes in their networks, although this depends greatly on the domain.

Another important characteristic of scale-free networks is the clustering coefficient distribution, which decreases as the node degree increases. This distribution also follows a power law. This implies that the low-degree nodes belong to very dense sub-graphs and those sub-graphs are connected to each other through hubs. Consider a social network in which nodes are people and links are acquaintance relationships between people. It is easy to see that people tend to form communities, i.e., small groups in which everyone knows everyone (one can think of such community as a complete graph). In addition, the members of a community also have a few acquaintance relationships to people outside that community. Some people, however, are connected to a large number of communities (e.g., celebrities, politicians). Those people may be considered the hubs responsible for the small-world phenomenon.

Properties of random graph may change or remain invariant under graph transformations. Mashaghi A. et al., for example, demonstrated that a transformation which converts random graphs to their edge-dual graphs (or line graphs) produces an ensemble of graphs with nearly the same degree distribution, but with degree correlations and a significantly higher clustering coefficient. Scale free graphs, as such, remain scale free under such transformations.

The most widely known generative model for a subset of scale-free networks is Barabási and Albert's (1999) rich get richer generative model in which each new Web page creates links to existing Web pages with a probability distribution which is not uniform, but proportional to the current in-degree of Web pages. This model was originally invented by Derek J. de Solla Price in 1965 under the term cumulative advantage, but did not reach popularity until Barabási rediscovered the results under its current name (BA Model). According to this process, a page with many in-links will attract more in-links than a regular page. This generates a power-law but the resulting graph differs from the actual Web graph in other properties such as the presence of small tightly connected communities. More general models and network characteristics have been proposed and studied. For example, Pachon et al. (2018) proposed a variant of the rich get richer generative model which takes into account two different attachment rules: a preferential attachment mechanism and a uniform choice only for the most recent nodes. For a review see the book by Dorogovtsev and Mendes.