Abstract Background Achieving a high response rate in a physician survey is challenging. Monetary incentives increase response rates but obviously add cost to a survey project. We wondered whether an offer of a free continuing medical education (CME) activity would be effective in improving survey response rate. Results As part of a survey of a national sample of physicians, we randomized half to an offer for a free on-line CME activity upon completion of a web-based survey and the other half to no such offer. We compared response rates between the groups. A total of 1214 out of 8477 potentially eligible physicians responded to our survey, for an overall response rate of 14.3%. The response rate among the control group (no offer of CME credit) was 16.6%, while among those offered the CME opportunity, the response rate was 12.0% (p < 0.0001). Conclusions An offer for a free on-line CME activity did not improve physician survey response rate. On the contrary, the offer for a free CME activity actually appeared to worsen the response rate.