Untitled: “The structural basis of…” titles for structural biology papers

This recent tweet made me chuckle.

It does seem that many structural biology papers have a title that begins “The structural basis of…”. I took a quick PubMed survey to look at its popularity.

First a search of "structural basis"[ti] AND "journal article"[pt] gives us the number of research papers with “structural basis” in the title. This plot of the number of papers with this title each year is levelling off. The number of research papers on PubMed increases year-on-year, so we must normalise for the increase in production which might otherwise account for any apparent rise in popularity of the title.

The second graph shows the number of papers for each year and then dividing one by the other gives us the third graph. This plot shows that the fraction of papers on PubMed with “structural basis” in the title is declining and has been in decline since the mid-00s.

One final check. It could be that the number of structure papers is not stable. This seems unlikely given the explosion in the field due to cryoEM but let’s check it. The fourth plot shows that the fraction of structure papers that have “structural basis” in the title also shows the same decline since mid-00s after an increase during the 90s.


After a boom in the 90s, papers with “structural basis” in the title are in decline.

Science is all about progress and while a budding structural biologist may want to emulate classic structure papers by picking this title, I suspect that many think it is now a cliche and have started to look for alternatives.

Perhaps another reason is that “structure papers” these days are more likely to be broader: more about the molecular mechanism, rather than the structure itself, which may explain the change.


I’m only looking at “structural basis” in the title. This captures some papers that are not structural biology papers and I am not specifically looking for titles that start “The structural basis of” or “The structural basis for”. Also, determining structure papers was not easy. One idea I had was to use the number of papers with an associated PDB file, but for some reason the number of papers took a dive in 2016 and this seemed a little suspicious to me.

Lots of songs are titled “Untitled” in my library. I’ll go with the wonderful “Untitled” penultimate track on Matthew Sweet’s “In Reverse”. Probably one of my favourite Matthew Sweet songs.