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I just had my first paper accepted for publication (hooray!), but I'm wondering how copyright works for the paper. I know that for this publication, the publishing house owns the copyright of the final version, but I'm wondering if that means that I still have rights to distribute earlier versions (e.g., on academia.edu).

If so, which version? I.e., how different does it have to be from the final version?

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    It depends of the journals, I try to keep a pre-print version on my website (last round of revision before publishing) and I am hoping no one will complain. And congratulations on your paper! – Zenon Mar 23 '13 at 15:21
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After accepting the article, the journal will ask you to sign a copyright transfer. This document should describe in detail what rights the publisher gets, and what rights you retain. If it isn't acceptable to you, you can try to negotiate; your institution may have an intellectual property office that could help. If all else fails, you can withdraw the paper and submit it to a journal with different policies (perhaps even an open access journal).

It is pretty common for the author to retain the right to distribute preprints.

Congratulations on your paper!

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A little more googling would have served me well - another answer directed me to http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo, which looks a good resource for determining rights for each journal.

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    That's a good link to check on journals before you publish, but after you have submitted, checking the journal's statement of copyright transfer (as mentioned by Nate Eldredge) is the safer way to know your rights. – silvado Mar 23 '13 at 20:13
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I suppose you've just answered the question yourself, but I'd like to add that

a) it seems very common to make a copy of the paper available on your own site (or something like academia.edu) so I would think most journals do allow this (at least in CS)

b) it is good practice, too, since it makes it a lot easier for people who research your work to be able to download the paper straight away rather than having to go through institutional logins or have no access at all.

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