A simple rule of thumb based on resolution is not adequate to identify the best treatment of atomic displacements in macromolecular structural models. The choice to use isotropic B factors, anisotropic B factors, TLS models or some combination of the three should be validated through statistical analysis of the model refinement.
In choosing and refining any crystallographic structural model, there is tension between the desire to extract the most detailed information possible and the necessity to describe no more than what is justified by the observed data. A more complex model is not necessarily a better model. Thus, it is important to validate the choice of parameters as well as validating their refined values. One recurring task is to choose the best model for describing the displacement of each atom about its mean position. At atomic resolution one has the option of devoting six model parameters (a ‘thermal ellipsoid’) to describe the displacement of each atom. At medium resolution one typically devotes at most one model parameter per atom to describe the same thing (a ‘B factor’). At very low resolution one cannot justify the use of even one parameter per atom. Furthermore, this aspect of the structure may be described better by an explicit model of bulk displacements, the most common of which is the translation/libration/screw (TLS) formalism, rather than by assigning some number of parameters to each atom individually. One can sidestep this choice between atomic displacement parameters and TLS descriptions by including both treatments in the same model, but this is not always statistically justifiable. The choice of which treatment is best for a particular structure refinement at a particular resolution can be guided by general considerations of the ratio of model parameters to the number of observations and by specific statistics such as the Hamilton R-factor ratio test.