Universities are offering star researchers "golden handcuffs" to fend off poaching attempts in the run-up to the research assessment exercise.
As departments fight to push up their RAE scores, key university figures said this week that they were creating "bespoke packages" to attract the best researchers in an increasingly aggressive market.
In some cases, this includes the offer of a substantial bonus if the researcher stays for five years, or until after the crucial census date for the 2008 RAE.
David Allen, registrar and secretary of Exeter University, said: "It is purely a defensive strategy. You never know if someone you are hiring will be made an offer he or she can't refuse. This way any would-be employer would have to 'buy out' the golden handcuffs, which might make them think twice."
He said that researchers liked to feel that the university was committing to them in the long term.
Mr Allen added: "We are not alone in doing this. These days when you recruit someone it has to be bespoke rather than off the peg. You put together a package to suit them."
Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, said that his institution had struck special deals with junior academics as well as with professors to persuade them to join the university long term. He said: "You have to consider different packages for different subject areas."
Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, said that golden handcuffs made sense for universities that were investing heavily in new facilities to woo research stars.
Professor Bone said: "I haven't yet done it. But if you are putting hundreds of thousands of pounds into a lab refit to attract someone, you don't want that person to leave after three years."
He added: "I have done one or two deals that are effectively golden handcuffs, where I've agreed that if a person approaching retirement stays for a certain amount of time we would offer a pension enhancement."
Richard Davies, vice-chancellor of Swansea University, said his institution "would certainly consider" golden handcuffs, particularly because his best researchers had all received unsolicited calls from big research institutions wishing to poach them.
But he said: "It is not all about money. It is also about having a nice place to live and to bring up a family. Many of my colleagues have helped people they want to recruit to house hunt."
But some Russell Group universities criticised the idea of paying researchers to stay.
Dave Delpy, vice-provost for research at University College London, said:
"We will certainly not go down that route. If individuals do not feel sufficiently loyal to stay here, I am not sure we should bend over backwards to try to keep them."
Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Ma chester University, said: "We would say we'd like you on board for the RAE; but if not, we want you anyway. We would do everything we could to get them on board for the census date, but we wouldn't offer bonuses."
She added: "We've got someone big who will almost certainly come on board in February 2008. We are looking at that as a major recruiting time."