If you’re going to tell me “no”, then at least give me a reason

One of the responsibilities I have as editor of the academic journal Agriculture and Human Values is to invite scholars to evaluate papers submitted for publication. But soliciting reviewers is difficult. It takes time to identify potential reviewers and to extend the review invitation. In 2015, I made 900 invitations to scholars to review papers submitted to the journal. Two thirds of those who were invited agreed to review and most provided excellent reports, which helped me make the difficult decision of accepting or rejecting papers for publication. But one-third of invited reviewers declined to review. I use an online manuscript management system to send an email to reviewers asking them to accept or decline the review request. When an invited reviewer declines, the reviewer is asked to provide a reason. Almost half of those who declined gave no reason for their unwillingness or inability to review the paper.

This afternoon I sent a request to a scholar to review a paper for me. Within minutes the person decline but did not give me a reason. I get really annoyed when a scholar says “no” without giving me a reason. Give me a reason! I’ll take almost any excuse over nothing. For example, sometimes invited reviewers give trivial reasons, as in “I am too busy now.” I can accept that. That is better than offering no reason at all. Giving a reason shows respect. Not giving a reason is what masters do to servants, officers do to conscripted soldiers, and kings do to subjects.

In 1978, a Harvard University professor published the results of an interesting experiment in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the experiment, a person approached adults waiting in a line to make photocopies and asked, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Not surprisingly, the request to cut in front of others waiting to use the same machine was frequently declined – in this case, 40% of the time. When a meaningful reason was given for the request, as in “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” the number of persons refusing the request to cut in line declined to only 6%; thus, most people let the person cut in line. Interestingly, when a trivial reason was given for the request, as in “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” the rate of refusal was almost identical to the case when a meaningful reason was given. This is interesting, because the reason given in the latter case was the same reason that others had for standing in the line. In other words, all that mattered for those waiting in line was that a reason be given for the request that created a burden for them – “even if the reason conveyed no information,” according to the study. Simply stated, people appreciate and will respond to a reason, even if it is a trivial one.

So, if you ask for my help, I’ll probably tell you “no”, but at least I’ll give you a reason.

 

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Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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