‘Our children have told us off for talking too much about episodic memory’

Chris Moulin and Celine Souchay on a professional and personal marriage.

This is a collaboration. Who knows which one of us produced which bits of it. In about 15 years, we have co-authored – it seems – 34 articles and chapters together, jointly spent nearly one million euros of public money on research and co-supervised four PhD students. We also have two sons and live together in a crazy renovation project in the Alps. Putting all our professional and personal eggs in one basket has been a fun and fruitful way of organising our lives, and it has defined our collaboration.

We met at a British Psychological Society conference one of us was organising in 2004. It wasn’t very long until we were married, and by 2005 we were organising the same conference again, this time together. The marriage wasn’t about scientific collaboration, it was more like a common story of meeting someone at work: our jobs led to our romance. All we shared initially was a similar view on work-life balance and a mutual enthusiasm for science and higher education (oh, and our PhDs were nearly identical in scope and topic). In the end, scientific collaboration was inevitable.

It needn’t have been like this. We could have been each other’s nemesis: scooping the other’s findings or proposing alternative evaluations of the same data, perhaps even clashing in our reviews for the rest of our careers. We conducted very similar PhDs in different countries at the same time, both investigating awareness in Alzheimer’s disease. We only became aware of each other when we started publishing, at the end of our theses, and we got to review each other’s papers before we met in person. Our first work together was to understand some discrepancies between our two research programmes: one of us tended to find intact metacognition in Alzheimer’s disease, and the other impairment. One big name in our field was astonished to find we were married; ‘Wait! You’re together? How do you go to bed at night with your different findings on metacognition?’ ‘We tend not to talk about it much’, one of us said.

The first collaboration wasn’t a joint effort on paper; it was a single author review article which brought together various research findings both from within the marriage, and beyond. We imagine this synthesis of the literature would have occurred anyway, but for us, it seems very much like our emotional closeness and cooperation were the drivers for this work. Plus, we talked about nothing else whilst walking to work for a period of about two months. It meant we learned a lot about each other’s work and approach, and critically, the things we had tried that hadn’t worked. All collaborations thrive on openness, trust, and sharing of failures as well as successes.

Married academics are not such a rare breed. Many of our most admired colleagues and mentors were married to academics. Our work is somewhat more intertwined than other couples we know; we were working on almost identical questions before we met, and we weren’t about to give up on our reputation in one domain just to separate ourselves. What is difficult is the nagging prejudice whereby people want to identify whose work a co-authored paper really is (and their default resolution of this question is usually in the direction of everyday sexism). It’s a question which is frequently asked of us, but it doesn’t occur for our collaborations with other people.

It’s a collaboration with a few rules. We put our ‘other’ (i.e. non-scientific) projects first in our spare time. Renovating the house has been a tremendous adventure, a collaboration of another type. There’s no exaggerating the importance of our work, either. It’s no good coming home from work saying, ‘I simply must re-write the discussion section of a paper this evening, it’s terribly important’, because we both know it is not true. Another rule is not to talk about work at home. Our children are probably the best judge of whether we achieve this. They have occasionally told us off for ‘talking too much about episodic memory’. One imagines they aren’t inviting us to talk more about semantic memory.  

We think it is possibly more unusual for other people than it is for us. We have to work hard to separate ourselves and justify our contributions to others. They in turn have to understand that we don’t spend all of our time talking to each other about meta d-prime. Like any other collaboration, we have pockets of unique and shared knowledge, and just because we live under the same roof does not mean we both favour the same correction for multiple comparisons.

As with all collaborations, in the end we are always hoping for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It often suits us to ask the other one to help out when we are stuck or don’t know something; our skills are complementary. But if collaboration was limited to just the two of us, we wouldn’t have got very far in our careers. We are far more dependent on the brilliant and motivated early career researchers, and our wise and patient mentors than we are on each other. We are far too alike to really make a go of research without broader help and expertise.

-  Chris Moulin and Celine Souchay are in the Laboratoire de Psychologie & NeuroCognition at the Université Grenoble Alpes, France.
[email protected] @chrsmln
[email protected] @souchayc

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