Floating and stranded marine debris is widespread. Increasing sea levels and altered rainfall, solar radiation, wind speed, waves, and oceanic currents associated with climatic change are likely to transfer more debris from coastal cities into marine and coastal habitats. Marine debris causes economic and ecological impacts, but understanding the scope of these requires quantitative information on spatial patterns and trends in the amounts and types of debris at a global scale. There are very few large-scale programs to measure debris, but many peer-reviewed and published scientific studies of marine debris describe local patterns. Unfortunately, methods of defining debris, sampling, and interpreting patterns in space or time vary considerably among studies, yet if data could be synthesized across studies, a global picture of the problem may be avaliable. We analyzed 104 published scientific papers on marine debris in order to determine how to evaluate this. Although many studies were well designed to answer specific questions, definitions of what constitutes marine debris, the methods used to measure, and the scale of the scope of the studies means that no general picture can emerge from this wealth of data. These problems are detailed to guide future studies and guidelines provided to enable the collection of more comparable data to better manage this growing problem.