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BACKGROUND: Response rates by general practitioners (GPs) to postal surveys have consistently fallen, compromising the validity of this type of research. If postal survey work is to continue we need to understand GPs' reasons for not participating and respond appropriately. AIM: To investigate GPs' reasons for not responding to postal surveys. METHOD: A qualitative study was carried out to determine GPs reasons for not participating in postal surveys, which were drawn from a telephone survey of 276 non-responders to a postal questionnaire survey. Practitioners' comments were recorded and reasons for their non-response quantified using content analysis. RESULTS: Primary reasons for GPs not replying to the postal survey were that questionnaires had got lost in paperwork (34%), that GPs were too busy for the extra work involved (21%), and that questionnaires were routinely 'binned' (16%). Higher practice workloads, including increased administration, meant that participation in research had become a low priority. GPs provided some suggestions for researchers that would increase their chances of questionnaires being returned. CONCLUSIONS: Researchers need to be aware of the pressures of service general practice and to rationalize the amount of research material sent to GPs. GPs were most likely to respond to postal surveys that had a high interest factor, that involved localized research relevant to general practice, and that incorporated a personalized approach by researchers, including good-quality explanatory information.