Michael Mitzenmacher points to two posts of Suresh Venkatasubramanian on the issue of so called “double blind reviews” (i.e., anonymous submissions) in theory conferences. In short, both Michael and Suresh think they are a good idea. I agree with much of their motivations, but, based on my experience in both non-blinded (e.g., STOC/FOCS) and blinded (e.g., CRYPTO) conferences as both reviewer and author, I do not think double blind reviewing is a good fit for theoretical computer science.
Let me say right off the bat that I think implicit (and, as Michael says, sometimes explicit) bias is a very real phenomenon. Moreover, such biases are not just a problem in the sense that they are “unfair” to authors, but they cause real harm to science, in suppressing the contributions from certain authors. Nor do I have any principled objection to anonymization: I do for example practice anonymous grading in my courses for exactly this reason. I also don’t buy the suggestion that we must know the author’s identity to evaluate if the proof is correct. Reviewers can (and do) evaluate whether a proof makes sense without needing to trust the author.
However, there is a huge difference between grading a problem set and refereeing a paper. In the latter case, and in particular in theoretical computer science, you often need the expertise of very particular people that have worked on this area. By the time the paper is submitted to a conference, these experts have often already seen it, either because it was posted on the arxiv/eccc/eprint, or because they have seen a talk on it, or perhaps they have already discussed it with the authors by email.
More generally, these days much of theoretical CS is moving to the model where papers are first posted online, and by the time they are submitted to a conference they have circulated quite a bit around the relevant experts. Posting papers online is very good for science and should be encouraged, as it allows fast dissemination of results, but it does make the anonymous submission model obsolete.
One could say that if the author’s identity is revealed then there is no harm, since in such a case we simply revert to the original form of non anonymous submissions. However, the fact that the authors’ identity is known to some but not all participants in the process (e.g., maybe some reviewers but not others), makes some conflicts and biases invisible. Moreover, the fact that the author’s identity is not “officially” known, causes a lot of practical headaches.
For example, as a PC member you can’t just shoot a quick email to an expert to ask for a quick opinion on the paper, since they may well be the author themselves (as happened to me several time as a CRYPTO PC member), or someone closely related to them. Second, you often have the case where the reviewer knows who the authors are, and has some history with them, even if it’s not a formal conflict, but the program committee member does not know this information. In particular, using anonymous submissions completely precludes using a disclosure based model for conflicts of interest (where reviewers disclose their relations with the authors in their reviews) but rather you have to move to an exclusion based model, where reviewers meeting some explicit criteria are ruled out.
If anonymous submissions don’t work well for theory conferences, does it mean we have to just have to accept biases? I don’t think so. I believe there are a number of things we could attempt. First, while completely anonymizing submissions might not work well, we could try to make the author names less prominent, for example by having them in the last page of the submissions instead of the first, and not showing them in the conference software. Also, we could try “fairness through awareness”. As I mentioned in my tips for future FOCS/STOC chairs, one potential approach is to tag papers by authors who never had a prior STOC/FOCS paper (one could possibly also tag papers by authors from under-represented groups). One wouldn’t give such papers preferential treatment, but rather just make sure they get extra attention. For example, we could add an extra review for such papers. That review might end up being positive or negative, but would counter the bias of dismissing some works out of hand.
To summarize, I agree with Michael’s and Suresh’s sentiments that biases are harmful and should be combated. I just don’t think anonymous submissions are the way to go about that.