I have observed that most papers with titles starting with "On the ..." are theoretical ones, like pure mathematics, physics, computer science, etc. Most of these papers are relatively old, though I can find a few recent examples as well.

  1. Are such titles becoming obsolete?
  2. If not, when is it appropriate to use it?
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    I've published a paper starting with "On the" in 2015, maybe it's a sign I'm becoming obsolete too :-) – Massimo Ortolano Aug 28 '15 at 12:03
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    My most highly cited paper (as co-author) is one from 2012 starting "On the..". Anyway *everything * is field-specific, and in "On the use of dated language forms in academic writing" it would be disappointingly modern. – Chris H Aug 28 '15 at 14:12
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    Clearly this requires retitling to: On the Obsolescence of Research Papers starting with "On the". – Lilienthal Aug 28 '15 at 15:02
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    Someone should do a study on this usage of "On the..." Publish a paper titled, "On the use of 'On The'." – loneboat Aug 28 '15 at 16:13
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    On [the]... is a common translation for the titling style De... used by Roman philosophers (Cicero: De Amicitia, On Friendship; De Re Publica, On the Republic; etc.), which makes this scheme older than feudalism. That it has ups and downs in popularity over the last couple of millenia is no great surprise. – KRyan Aug 29 '15 at 16:50

Obsolete, no. Unfashionable, perhaps. One can usually drop the "on the" and still have an acceptable title in current usage, and I expect that is just what many do.

On the other hand, I, like Massimo Ortolano, have also recently published an "On the" paper, so apparently I don't really care about the fashionableness of my titles. I would suggest that you not worry about it either.

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    Anyway my secret dream, now no longer secret, is to publish a paper starting "Musings on...". – Massimo Ortolano Aug 28 '15 at 12:22
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    @MassimoOrtolano I think the "Musings on" part is implied in all academic papers. – xLeitix Aug 28 '15 at 12:47
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    @MassimoOrtolano, now I have a new purpose in life: a paper "Random musings on..." ;-) – vonbrand Aug 28 '15 at 13:30
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    you could go full Victorian: "Some initial considerations towards a revised perspective on the --- question". – Andrew Aug 28 '15 at 13:58
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    @Andrew - Perhaps "A prolegomena to a proper treatment of ..." – Charles Stewart Aug 28 '15 at 14:23

As I always understood it, a paper called Zero-dimensional vector spaces claims to be an exhaustive overview of the topic, while On zero-dimensional vector spaces would be merely a contribution to the study of those spaces. So it is humility on the part of the authors.

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  • This is how I read it too and have used it in my papers. – Thomas Ahle May 26 at 7:07

As mentioned already, it still happens and is considered acceptable by many, but others feel it is unnecessary, so I would say it's rather subjective like many aspects of grammar and punctuation. The best thing to do, if you're concerned is read the guidelines for the venue you're submitting to, and look at titles of recent articles in that venue. I've certainly seen explicit instructions to avoid titles starting "On..." though I don't remember where. The closest example I could find right now was in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology instructions:

Title, running title, byline, affiliation line, and corresponding author. Each manuscript should present the results of an independent, cohesive study; thus, numbered series titles are not permitted. Exercise care in composing a title. Avoid the main title/subtitle arrangement, complete sentences, and unnecessary articles.

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