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PLoS One. 2010 May 7;5(5):e10541. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010541.

The Newcomb-Benford law in its relation to some common distributions.

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Department of Psychological Basic Research, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.


An often reported, but nevertheless persistently striking observation, formalized as the Newcomb-Benford law (NBL), is that the frequencies with which the leading digits of numbers occur in a large variety of data are far away from being uniform. Most spectacular seems to be the fact that in many data the leading digit 1 occurs in nearly one third of all cases. Explanations for this uneven distribution of the leading digits were, among others, scale- and base-invariance. Little attention, however, found the interrelation between the distribution of the significant digits and the distribution of the observed variable. It is shown here by simulation that long right-tailed distributions of a random variable are compatible with the NBL, and that for distributions of the ratio of two random variables the fit generally improves. Distributions not putting most mass on small values of the random variable (e.g. symmetric distributions) fail to fit. Hence, the validity of the NBL needs the predominance of small values and, when thinking of real-world data, a majority of small entities. Analyses of data on stock prices, the areas and numbers of inhabitants of countries, and the starting page numbers of papers from a bibliography sustain this conclusion. In all, these findings may help to understand the mechanisms behind the NBL and the conditions needed for its validity. That this law is not only of scientific interest per se, but that, in addition, it has also substantial implications can be seen from those fields where it was suggested to be put into practice. These fields reach from the detection of irregularities in data (e.g. economic fraud) to optimizing the architecture of computers regarding number representation, storage, and round-off errors.

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