Back to STOC stuff, continuing my past post on conflicts. While the theory of how to handle conflicts is one thing, the practice is another. How did things work in practice?
For those who say it's mildly annoying, I admit I agree. People having to leave the room is obviously less appealing than people not having to leave the room -- I'm not going to argue that. But really, I think the annoyance is minor, at worst. In most cases, zero to two people had to leave the room. People seemed to pay attention and get up and leave when they had to. (Arguably, people pay more attention to what's coming up when there are conflicts, which is actually a plus.) We could have been better about remembering to call people back in promptly. With practice, I don't think that would be a big deal either.
I didn't feel that we lost out on needed expertise because of the policy, but again, the implementation was more flexible than in networking conferences I've been involved in.
One PC member insisted on leaving the room for a discussion and vote because of a conflict, but we insisted they stay to answer our questions first!
Overall, I did not find it overly disruptive. And I think such a policy greatly reduces or even avoids worst-case scenarios where a PC member -- intentionally or unintentionally -- biases the outcome of a paper where they have a conflict. I've been on many PCs over the years, and I've seen it happen more than once. No, I'm not saying such happenings are rampant -- I think they're rare -- but I think they could be rarer still. To me, the annoyance involved is a small price to pay for that. Also, I think even if you disregard the possibility of someone intentionally pushing a paper where they have a conflict (which, actually, does happen), on the whole people underestimate the power of unconscious and unintentional bias.
Paul Beame (in comments to the previous post) says that people should be allowed to stay in the room, but remain silent and declare conflicts as they arise; and similarly, that software shouldn't block people from seeing reviews/discussions on conflict papers. I think he offers a consistent alternative, but I (as he knows :) ) disagree. His approach seems designed to avoid any possible manipulation of decisions by PC members that may have a conflict, which of course is all to the good. In practice, in my experience, that silence rule is not generally maintained. (For a variety of reasons, many of them laced with good intentions. It's hard for experts to stay quiet, particularly when a colleague/student/etc. is involved.) He ignores the issue that simply having the person in the room may stifle some discussion in the PC meeting. (Junior people can be and are often intimidated, to various degrees, by senior people in such a setting. We can argue about whether they should be, but in practice, they can be.) And finally (and most importantly), he's dismissing the issue of information in reviews or discussions getting back to the authors. (Yes, discussions are confidential -- as are the parts of the reviews labelled "to the committee" instead of "to the author" -- but as we've read in the previous comments, there can be a fair amount of leaking of information after the fact.) My thought is that when you say you have a conflict, that precisely means you SHOULD NOT see the reviews or hear the discussion for the paper -- the networking standard -- unless there's an important overriding reason for you to do so. That prevents you from intentionally or unintentionally leaking supposedly confidential information.
And to be clear, I think the "we need the expertise" argument is overhyped. In cases where it's needed, I would agree exceptions need to be made. In most cases, it's not needed (there are other people in the room capable of making the judgment), but people don't want to be left out of the decision process where they are also an expert. There's a difference.
I have no regrets about implementing things this way. Others disagree. Overall, I think it's a topic worthy of more community discussion. In particular, the use of conflicted subreviewers that also came up in comments on the previous post really deserves some attention. I think a more consistent and thought-through standard should apply. Our community may have it's own standard, but as a community I think more discussion including ackowledgment and understanding of the pros and cons of the various possible approaches would be useful.