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Does posting papers on websites such as Academia.edu or ResearchGate count as "publishing" for the sake of future journal submission? That is, if I have uploaded my paper to Academia.edu, can I later submit it to a journal that wants only "previously unpublished" work?

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    Every field is different. In math, no. In chemistry, yes. – JeffE Dec 9 '14 at 2:26
  • What about the humanities? – SAH Dec 9 '14 at 4:06
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    @SAH usually the journal you will want to publish to has this policy outlined in their "guide to authors". – Gimelist Dec 9 '14 at 7:18
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    @SAH - Publishers in the humanities tend to be very conservative. – Charles Stewart Dec 9 '14 at 11:32
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    ROMEO is a compilation of journal policies regarding this. You can check your favourite journal there. – Davidmh Dec 27 '14 at 4:04
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Since nobody wrote it in an answer, I'll do it: the answer to your question depends on the journal, but in each field most journal would have about the same policy.

In some fields (e.g. mathematics, high energy physics), the answer is 'no': posting a preprint in Academia.edu, the arXiv, or on your web page does not prevent you to have your work published by a journal. Many publishers will even allow you to update your public preprint according to the referee's comments, only keeping the publisher-formated version behind a paywall (not all of them though: Oxford University Press has a very damaging policy in this regard).

In other fields (e.g. some humanities at least in some countries, chemistry) the answer is often 'yes': many journal would reject your paper right away on the ground that it already has been "published" in the sense of being made public. Even if they don't check, they may ask you to pledge that you did not published the material previously in that broad sense, and lying on these kind of issue may be devastating to a career.

In other circumstances, the answer may be more subtle. Some very prestigious magazines as Nature, Science, PNAS may ask for some publications that the authors keep them secret until the journals communicates about the work. This is to ensure maximum media coverage, but of course it concerns only the very small portion of academic works that is considered both as very important for the field, and of great interest of a general audience.

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I wouldn't publish my papers on a website that everyone can see before it is actually published in a journal or a conference. Someone else may claim ownership and there is nothing you can do about it

In any case, assuming you did publish it on either website, you can still publish it in any journal or conference as long as you honor any copyright rules or guidelines.

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    Thanks. Couple things: 1) Re: "Someone else may claim ownership and there is nothing you can do about it" -- One does attain a sort of de-facto copyright on one's work as long as one can prove that one did it first. In this case, the publication date on Academia.edu is a kind of safeguard – SAH Dec 9 '14 at 0:44
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    Repeat after me: "The best way to prevent theft of your work is to disseminate it as widely as possible, so everybody knows you wrote it." – ff524 Dec 9 '14 at 0:46
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    @ff524 Please make this an answer, so we can upvote ;-) One needs to be careful that the intended journal has no problem with preprints (via arxiv or whatever) but I don't know many journals that have. – choener Dec 9 '14 at 0:54
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    @choener It's not an answer to the question, since the question is not about theft, but about copyright guidelines. – ff524 Dec 9 '14 at 0:56
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    @SAH It's not just de facto -- if you've made the work available to the public, you have an automatic actual copyright on it. – cpast Dec 10 '14 at 4:20

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