Rejections based on refusals to review

I was just browsing, and came across this piece in the Write Back section of Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment from 2015 (13:241). An excerpt:

…the shortage of available reviewers has started to push journal editors toward dangerous waters. For example, one possible response to this shortage is… if a large number of reviewers refuse to review a given manuscript beyond what is expected by chance, then that manuscript is of low quality and should not be reviewed.

Followed by an example:

Recently, an editor of a prestigious ecological journal declined to publish a manuscript because 15 potential reviewers in a row had refused to review it. The editor’s argument relied on the fact that for every 10 potential reviewers invited to review a manuscript submitted to this journal, seven typically decline; at the stated 7/10 or 0.7 refusal probability, the probability of consecutive refusal by 15 reviewers is 0.5% (where [0.7]15 = 0.005 or 0.5%). The editor then argued that this probability of refusal was much lower than would occur by chance, which the editor defined as any probability that was less than 5% (or, nine refusals in a row, where [0.7]9 = 0.04 or 4%).

No citation was given for the example, so it might have been a personal experience of the author. One problem in using such a heuristic to reject articles is: why 5%? Or why 0.5%, or any other number? And the author also later argues that refusal to review is dependent on so many factors not related to manuscript quality, and also, reviewer decline rates are temporally variable. Are you going to adjust the cut-off rate according to seasonal patterns in reviewer availability? Are you going to base this year’s cut-off on last year’s reviewer decline rates? Or last x years? Or on a rate projected for this year?

In all, a poor criteria to rely on, however tempting it may be. But interesting to read someone write about it.